“The play sheds a light on a very interesting premise—what it means to incarcerate someone and what it does to them,” said Jessica Mortellaro, who, along with her Speck of Light Productions co-founder Chloë Dirksen, is performing in and producing “This Wide Night” at the John Drew Theater of Guild Hall in East Hampton beginning Thursday, March 17.
This two-woman play by British playwright Chloë Moss focuses on a friendship forged in prison, after both women are released. Described by The Times of London as “heartrending … beautifully written; comic, colourful, full of pain and tenderness and truth.” Ms. Mortellaro and Ms. Dirksen both said the work struck them hard when they first read it.
“Chloë [Dirksen] and I had been talking about collaboration for a while,” Ms. Mortellaro said. The two have appeared in numerous East End productions, and have worked together on “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill A Mockingbird” as part of the Literature Live! series at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.
They formed the Speck of Light Productions theater company last year, and began reading plays to find the right fit for their first production.
“We had instant reactions” to “This Wide Night,” Ms. Mortellaro said.
The work was originally commissioned in 2006 by the British nonprofit Clean Break, formed in 1979 by two female prisoners “who believed that theatre could bring the hidden stories of imprisoned women to a wider audience,” according to the organization’s website.
“The treatment of women by the criminal justice system is one of the clearest demonstrations that our society is still fundamentally unequal and that women are judged by different standards to men,” the website states.
“This Wide Night” was first produced by Clean Break at the Soho Theatre in London in 2008, and received the Susan Blackburn Prize for women writers of outstanding quality the following year. In 2010, Edie Falco and Alison Pill starred in a New York City production to much critical acclaim.
The story follows Lorraine, who upon her release from prison heads straight to her former cellmate Marie’s apartment, having nowhere else to go. “But the friendship that once protected them now threatens to smother their fragile freedom,” the synopsis states.
But will it play in East Hampton?
Both actress-producers insist that although the situation may be unfamiliar to most, the subject matter is universal.
“It’s about connection,” Ms. Dirksen said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a gorgeous mansion on Lily Pond Lane or just getting out of jail in South London—there’s a universal need to connect.”
The play focuses on the aftereffects of prison life rather than the crimes committed by the two. “They’re obviously damaged,” Ms. Dirksen said. “They wear that. It’s so human—they try to find levity where they can. It just feels so perfectly flawed and real.”
Both women were unfamiliar with the vagaries of prison existence before getting involved with the piece. “It’s this really interesting moment of life for a segment of the population that most of us are not familiar with,” Ms. Dirksen explained. “And it touches on all aspects that are specific to female prisoners.”
Ms. Mortellaro agreed, adding, “It just strikes a human chord.”
The John Drew Theater will be set up in the fashion used previously by director Stephen Hamilton; seats for the audience will be on the stage along with the actors to provide a more intimate setting.
“Everyone has been so supportive” of the fledgling production company, Ms. Mortellaro said. “There are so many pieces, and we’re doing most of it ourselves.”
The duo chose Joe Minutillo, a director they’ve both worked with, to captain the production. And Felix Bird, a Sag Harbor composer, is providing an entire original score for the play.
One performance will be particularly meaningful for the cast and crew. They have invited the students of Madonna Heights in Dix Hills, where Ms. Mortellaro’s mother is the art instructor, to see the show for free. The school, according to its website, “provides an environment that teaches, strengthens and encourages young and adult women to heal from trauma.”
Ms. Dirksen believes “This Wide Night” will resonate with everyone from every background. “It’s about two women who are just trying to do what we are all trying to do—connect to another human being and figure it all out.”
Ms. Mortellaro added that the new production company’s name fits in perfectly with its first choice in a professional production. “There’s a speck of light for these characters,” she said. “It’s a speck of hope.”
“This Wide Night” will be staged March 17 through March 26, Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 20, at 2 p.m., at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. For $28 advance tickets, visit speckoflightproductions.com. Tickets at the door are $35, cash only.
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