PORTSMOUTH, N.H. –– Michael Kimball’s new play is about a woman of color who faces the death penalty for a murder she may not have committed. It’s about the oppression and degradation of indigenous and marginalized people, the fear of immigrants, the dismissal of women as intellectual beings and the abuse of their bodies by men of power.

It’s about prejudice and class and how justice eludes people who do not have the means to defend themselves.

It’s also set in the 1730s and is based on events that happened in York. “Patience Boston,” on stage at Players’ Ring Theatre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a mostly true story, though Kimball takes some liberties in his retelling of actual events.

In the long career of one of Maine’s most diverse and successful literary figures, “Patience Boston” stands out as a play for the times, resonating with relevance in a society that remains beset by divisions of race and class and the unequal treatment of people. The story is nearly 300 years old, but the issues it raises course through American life today.

In an interview at the theater last week, Kimball, who lives in Cape Neddick, called this play “the most important piece I’ve ever done. This one is special because the themes are important.”

Kimball, 67, wrote the Colonial crime drama after researching the stories of Patience Boston, a 23-year-old native woman who was accused of drowning a young boy and was hanged in York on July 24, 1735, and the Rev. Joseph Moody, who ministered to Boston during her eight-month imprisonment in the old wooden York jail, which still stands today in York Village.

Kimball was sympathetic to the story of Patience Boston because he saw its themes play out in the media as he was writing – news reports about race-related tensions, the depersonalization of minorities and the tilted scales of justice. “In my view, she’s innocent,” Kimball said. “I don’t think she did it, but in those days, the people who were hanged were most often people of color.”

Kimball has been writing plays for 15 years, after ditching what had been a successful career as a novelist. His plays have been produced throughout New England and across the country, and in 2007, the Mystery Writers of America nominated “Ghost of Ocean House” for a best-play Edgar Award.

By all accounts, Patience Boston was a troubled soul nearly all of her short life. Born in 1711 into what is now the Nauset Tribe of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, she suffered the death of her mother when she was 5 and the abandonment of her family soon after. She was sold into servitude and turned out of her Puritan home and cast into the streets when she became rebellious in her teen years. Her breaking point seemed to be the death of the household’s mistress, the second death of a mother figure in Patience’s short life. She married a black man named Boston, who divorced her when she beat and cheated on him, and fell into a life of alcohol, theft and other self-destructive behaviors.

She confessed to drowning the boy in a well, but many people said the boy fell in the well by accident. She had confessed to killing two of her own children, though doctors told her they both died of fever, and she lied to her husband that she had given birth while he was at sea and said she killed that baby too. In fact, she wasn’t pregnant and made up the story, Kimball said.

One of the questions Kimball explores in the play is the nature of her death wish. She wanted to die, and Kimball wants to know why. “I think she was mentally ill, and whatever afflicted Patience Boston, organically or psychologically, had to have been exacerbated by the abuse and molestation that she suffered as a child. It had to have been a factor,” he said.

To further layer the story, Patience was pregnant when she was accused and convicted, and her hanging was delayed by eight months so she could birth her baby. That time frame allowed the young preacher in town, the Rev. Joseph Moody, to counsel the condemned woman. The son of frontier evangelist the Rev. Samuel Moody, young Joseph lived in the shadow and mold of his father. Forced into divinity school at age 15, he was sensitive, socially awkward and insecure.

He earned Patience’s trust during her imprisonment with his daily visits, which also earned the scorn and shame of his father, who did not approve.

Moody later developed odd behaviors, owing to his own psychological breakdown, said Kimball, whose research for the play included having access to Moody’s journals through the Old York Historical Society. Moody covered his face in a black shroud when he went out in public and eventually resigned his post as minister of the Second Church of York. His story is told in Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”

There are other characters in the play, including Patience’s jailer, the sheriff, Jeremiah Moulton, who openly expressed his dislike and distrust of natives and once led a military raid on an Abenaki village in Norridgewock.

With those real-life characters and factual circumstances to work with, Kimball’s challenge was weaving the story together, because, as he said, “There were a million ways I could screw it up.” Current events helped dictate his path as he began shaping the play around themes of injustice and the marginalization of people. The story might be old, he reasoned, but the circumstances could not be more timely.

The earliest ideas for this play percolated after Kimball took a ghost tour of York that involved visiting local cemeteries. He was introduced to many of the characters in the play during that tour, because they’re buried in town.

His introduction to theater began 15 years ago. Joe Dominguez, who co-owns the York Harbor Inn, recruited Kimball to help write a play about the 350th anniversary of York. “Mike was coming into the bar and occasionally would bring his laptop in and do some writing in the quiet of the afternoon,” Dominguez said. “I knew him as a novelist. That is what he was doing at the time, and that’s a very lonely business.”

Kimball declined at first, citing his fiction deadlines, but Dominguez prevailed on his civic spirit and promised it wouldn’t take much time. He only needed a good idea and a few pages of dialogue to get things going.

The next morning, Kimball delivered 16 pages of what would become a 30-odd-page script. “He gave us half the play,” Dominguez said.

He did much more than that. He collaborated with another local writer, Jennifer Saunders, to finish the play, which they titled “Submit!” It’s an historical drama about the meeting in 1652 in a York tavern where Massachusetts Puritan Simon Bradstreet coerced 50 residents of York to sign a charter making the town, and the entire Maine province, part of Massachusetts.

He’s written a dozen plays since, with no regrets about leaving behind a lucrative career writing thrillers. As a novelist, he worked alone in his office, and the isolation was crushing. With theater, he’s around actors and directors, and finds the collaborative process rewarding. With plays, he also can respond quickly to issues important to him. Whereas he might spend three years writing a book, he can write a play in much less time.

Kimball was an uncommonly successful novelist. His first thriller, “Undone” in 1996, was published worldwide and was a best-seller in England and Ireland and optioned for a movie. His second book, “Mouth to Mouth,” also had publishers worldwide and sold well.

After his third book came out in 2002, the book publishing business stopped being fun, so Kimball walked. He made a lot of money over a decade or so – he won’t say how much – but it was enough that he thought he might not need any more until he also lost a lot when the stock market crashed. “I don’t need much money, aside from eating and drinking and watching the Red Sox,” he said.

But mostly, he tired of writing thrillers. He needed to do something different, “and corporate publishers aren’t interested in something different.”

The final straw came when his agent called from Los Angeles about the movie option on “Undone.” An existing option on the book lapsed when the company that held it missed a renewal deadline because of an issue at the post office. The agent told Kimball he had a better offer for a new option that might result in a major Hollywood star making the movie. The agent needed Kimball to sign off on the deal. Kimball refused, explaining to the agent that he lived in Maine, and in Maine, “We don’t behave like that.”

It was nobody’s fault the option lapsed, he said. The company made a good-faith effort to renew it and was thwarted by circumstances beyond its control.

Since then, Kimball has written nothing but plays and thrown himself into theater in other ways. He designs the sound for his plays and for others, and has taken acting classes to better understand what it’s like to be on stage and how hard it is to memorize lines.

This is the third play of Kimball’s that Leslie Pasternack has directed and his most bold, she said. In addition to tackling issues of race and justice, Kimball has written a play with good roles for actors of color. An African-American actor, Paul S. Benford-Bruce, plays Patience’s husband. Pasternack and Kimball couldn’t find a Native American actor to play Patience.

Pasternack regrets that. “Liz Locke is playing Patience beautifully, and we have not put her in red face or brown face. We’ve not done anything to try to mimic visually or in her voice or movements any stereotype to signal to the audience, ‘This is a Native American.’ We have cast a human being to play a human being,” she said.

Pasternack thinks this show will get the attention of theater directors and producers across the country because of the issues it raises and the way Kimball presents historical figures and fleshes them out as human beings, heroic and flawed. Their struggles, both outward and inward, are real and relatable, she said.

“I have a good feeling this play will have a life beyond this run, that it will get out there. I hope it gets picked up in New England. I think it has the legs to get regional productions across the country,” Pasternack said. “It is historical, so it’s not about Trump, it’s not about Hillary or anything else that’s in your face to cause anxiety. It has the distance of time to give it perspective, but it’s alarming that Mike is writing a story set in the 1730s and we are still working out these issues today. Every single issue that is raised in ‘Patience Boston’ is even more resonant today, which is shocking.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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