While TreeGirl started as an “emotional poetic outburst” one night, Meghan Hubley's new play is firmly anchored in serious personal and political matters.
The poetic tale, produced by Forerunner Theatre for a four-show run at Eastern Front Theatre's Stages Theatre Festival, delves into depression, suicidal thoughts, doctor-assisted death and grief.
"There is also a girl in the tree,” says Hubley, who is often asked to describe the plot.
“It's very abstract,” she says. “TreeGirl is very quiet and meditative and the plot is driven by the emotions and these things aren't linear.
“It's taken seven years to course out a story arc.”
Keelin Jack plays Laurel, a depressed palliative care nurse who has climbed up a yew tree. She has lost a patient, the poet Audrey, who had cancer, to doctor-assisted death.
In order to visit his mother's grave, Audrey's son must pass under the tree and he strikes up a relationship with Laurel, who is also haunted by Audrey's ghost.
“She's not ready to jump and she's not ready to get down and go back to real life,” says Hubley, winner of the 2017 Mayor's Award for Emerging Artist. ” She lives in the tree and is unpacking her feelings.
“She's caught between the family and her own mental state and reality.”
The epigraph to the play is from Sylvia Plath: “This is not death, it is something safe.”
Most of Hubley's writing starts with the personal. “I had depression since I was a kid and I'm a pretty open book about that,” says the playwright, now in her late 20s and mother to a two-and-a-half-year-old son.
“I've had family members and friends pass away while working on this play, including a friend who committed suicide about three or four years into writing this play.
“It's this personal kernel but it's been a jumping-off point as well to other issues I find interesting and complex.”
While she was writing TreeGirl, the Canadian government started debating the legalization of doctor-assisted death.
Hubley became fascinated with the issue and read about it extensively. “I was thinking: How is that different from a person with a mental illness? I think there's a grey area.
As the law changed in Canada, so did TreeGirl and Audrey's storyline, since Hubley was keen to have her play set in the present.
Hubley, who is also an actor, director and co-founder of the Bus Stop Theatre's Playwrights Unit, loves poetry and has crafted TreeGirl as a long poem.
“Poetry is truth disguised as metaphor,” she says.
“TreeGirl is a magic realism play and it's a poem and metaphorical and set in many different timelines that overlap but I'm not saying suicide is just a metaphor.”
She, director Margaret Legere and the cast, including her partner Zach Faye and Martha Irving, are sensitive about how these darker subjects might affect people.
“Keelin was in the tree and put on the noose for the first time and it was stomach flip-flops. That's an image I'm sensitive about and I'm critical about the way the media and theatre discuss things like mental illness.
“We're balancing how we treat the subject matter as a poetic metaphor and the message that this is something real.”
She is also is interested in the theme of transformation, which she explored in her earlier, more autobiographical play Honey and Jupiter. “I was hospitalized with an eating disorder at 16. I turned 16 in the hospital. Jupiter talks about wanting to transcend, to escape the physical, to escape pain. That's a theme in this, too.”
The night of the Merritt Awards when she received the Mayor's Award from Halifax Mayor Mike Savage she was excited. “I felt seen. I felt like I was doing something right, I was on the right track.
“I work very slowly and I've been really workshopping the last little while and doing fringe shows and it feels like that's OK.”
She is equally excited to get TreeGirl on stage. “Margaret is the perfect brain to have on this. We have such a good designer and such a good cast.
“It's about seven years from Forerunner telling me, 'We got the grant to commission you,' to opening night.”
In June, she is starting work on a new script for Keep Good (Theatre) Company. “My starting point is the Joan of Arc story and Patti Smith so we'll see where it goes from there!"
TreeGirl runs Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., in the Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre. Tickets are $20 and $15 at www.tickethalifax.com.
Also at the festival this weekend are: The West Woods, a Mulgrave Road Theatre production, Dunn Theatre, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m.; The Archive of Missing Things, Zuppa Theatre, Killam Library, Thursday, 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; through May 25; Kate Crackerberry, a puppet show for kids by White Rooster Theatre, Nfld., Dunn Theatre, through Saturday, 10 a.m.
There are also weekend readings and on Monday, 7 p.m., The Company House, the Ten Minute Play Contest and 9 p.m., Pitch It, at the Killam Library. The festival runs through May 27.
For complete details go to Eastern Front Theatre online.