Husband-and-wife acting team David Mason and Kathy McCafferty star in the two-person play “Talley’s Folly” at Portland Stage. They are among the first professional actors in the country returning to the stage. Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

It’s time to go back to work.

Portland Stage will join a dozen theaters around the country that have won the endorsement of the Actors’ Equity Association, the national labor union representing professional actors and stage managers, to produce live theater with an audience present when it opens “Talley’s Folly,” a romantic comedy set in 1944 that tells a larger story about a society wracked with fear and two people who conquer that fear with love.

The actors, directors and other artists involved in the production are proceeding with caution, knowing the eyes of the acting nation are upon them. If they do a good job and everyone stays safe and healthy, it will help other professional theaters get back to the business of mounting plays. “With so few contracts out there, we have a responsibility to do the best job we can so Equity has the confidence to let other people try,” said director Sally Wood.

Sound designer Seth Asa at work at Portland Stage Company in a previous play. Photo by Emily Kenny

Seth Asa, a sound designer from Maine now living in Pennsylvania, was more direct. “We are, in a way, kind of the canary in a coal mine, and I am really glad Portland Stage has been given the opportunity to do this. It means a lot to me as an artist who has been asked to collaborate, but also as a theater professional. This could herald the return of our industry.”

The play represents a new world for Portland Stage – a limited run with a small audience and digital streaming options for people who would rather watch from home, all conditions that Portland Stage executive and artistic director Anita Stewart negotiated with the national actors’ guild, which has insisted on strict safety protocols to protect actors and audiences. The play opens for previews on Thursday, with a formal opening night on Sunday, Nov. 1, and runs through Nov. 15. Portland Stage will record a performance early in the run, and it will be available for streaming from Nov. 9-22.

If it goes well, more plays and digital streaming options will follow. Portland Stage has announced an outline of a season it hopes to present, and will proceed as public health guidelines and professional standards allow. Portland Stage is one of 13 theaters in the country that Equity has endorsed as meeting or exceeding its safety guidelines. Many more theaters, professional and otherwise in Maine and across the country, are presenting live theater – and doing so safely – but not with Equity actors in their employ.

“Talley’s Folly” is a small play, with just two actors. Portland Stage hired a married couple, Kathy McCafferty and David Mason, which made the process easier because they have been quarantining together throughout the pandemic. Christopher Akerlind, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer who lives in Portland and has been home throughout the pandemic, is lighting for the play.

Along with Asa, all are working for the first time since March and all are grateful to be earning a paycheck.

Christopher Akerlind, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer, at his home on Munjoy Hill. He is working on the new play at Portland Stage, and doing much of his work at home. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“When Anita asked, I didn’t let her finish the sentence,” said Akerlind, who was lighting Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” in London when the pandemic brought him home to Maine. He has been teaching remotely, but hasn’t worked in theater since then. “I am excited about making light for performance again. It is a great opportunity, and Anita has managed it brilliantly between the union and city and the state and all the guidelines. She said the Equity guidelines are more complicated than the (city’s), which makes sense. They want to protect their members.”

“It feels good to get back to work” said McCafferty, who finished up a run of “Almost, Maine” in Portland in February and was in tech for a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, when the pandemic hit. She was able to reunite with her husband in New York, and they fled for the isolation of her parents’ summer home in Duxbury, Massachusetts, where they remained until Portland Stage summoned them north.

“There is a certain degree of risk in anything you do, but I will take that over being unemployed. Creative people need to be doing,” she said. “It’s a fallacy to say that people want to sit around and collect unemployment. That is not true. I want to go back to work and wouldn’t do it unless I felt confident in the organization and the safely plan.”

Mason concurred, and said he feels safe in part because they’re working in Maine, “and Maine is doing pretty well as far as the pandemic goes. Every time we go outside, everyone on the street is wearing a mask, which is No. 1 in terms of safety. I feel totally fine in and out of the theater. … It’s the first job I’ve ever had doing anything anywhere where I get a swab stuck up my nose every week.”

David Mason, Kathy McCafferty and director Sally Wood, in rehearsal for “Talley’s Folly.” Photo by Mical Hutson, courtesy of Portland Stage

The last time Wood directed a play was “Almost, Maine” at Portland Stage with McCafferty in the cast. Closing night was Feb. 9, and that feels like a long time and a different world ago – and being able to work again feels like a dream, she said. None of them takes it for granted, knowing the play could get canceled or postponed if the public health crisis takes a turn, she added.

The rehearsal process has been challenging. They are working in the rehearsal hall at Portland Stage, which is buttoned-off from everyone except the actors and Wood, the stage manager and two other theater employees. No one else is allowed in when the creative team is present. They all wear masks and maintain social distancing, except the actors when they are on the floor. They eat separately and in isolated rooms so they can remove their masks. Everybody is tested weekly.

There will be safety protocols for the audience when the play opens. Most noticeably, audiences will be limited to 48 people and seated in pods – small groups of friends and family who are comfortable sitting together – and masks will be mandatory. There will be paperless ticketing, digital playbills and no lingering in the lobby and no concessions. The play lasts about 90 minutes with no intermission. Portland Stage has adjusted showtimes on two-show days to allow more time to sanitize the theater between performances. It also has updated its air-circulation system with bipolar ionization technology, which attacks bacteria, mold and viruses.

And it will record one performance for digital streaming by audiences who are more comfortable staying home. All for the sake of art.

“As artists, we need each other desperately,” Wood said. “We are better as a group than we are solo.”

Playwright Lanford Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for “Talley’s Folly,” which tells the story of Matt Friedman and Sally Talley, would-be lovers who have to navigate the circumstances of their times and their very different lives to find a way to make their romance work. Stewart chose the play because its themes resonate today. It involves class politics, immigration and the judgment of others, as well as the idea of the collective good versus individual prosperity. There’s even a subtheme of tuberculosis, an infectious disease that forced Sally into isolation.

“On the surface and beneath, it’s a love story, but it’s also about a country dealing with economic hard times and wartime and the idea of ‘the other’ – the idea of immigrants and people who are different and what it means to come in contact with them, and prejudice and racism,” Mason said. “It all comes together in this beautiful dance of a love story that seems really appropriate for the times that we are in. It tells this story of two broken people dealing with a difficult time and battling their way out of it, whether they want to or not.”

“It asks questions about how we take care of the least fortunate in our community,” McCafferty added. “It’s about two individuals who are struggling with fear and reflect a nation seized by fear. How do you choose to move through fear and choose to be hopeful and courageous? How do you do the right thing for your community when you are afraid of losing everything?”

McCafferty and Mason met in a production of “Almost, Maine,” written by Mainer John Cariani, in 2009 at Shadowland Stages in Ellenville, New York. A year later, they were cast together in “Last Gas” at Portland Stage, a play also written by Cariani, who spoke at their wedding. Given their history with the theater and their connections to Portland and Maine, McCafferty and Mason said it was appropriate to return to work here.

Many times since the spring, they wondered if their careers and ways of life would end because of the pandemic. When Stewart told the couple this summer she was working with Equity for permission to do a show, it felt like a lifeline, McCafferty said.

She dared to hope.

“I can’t tell you what that did for my heart. Between March and July, like so many people I know in the arts industry, I was really struggling. We all lost our entire way of life and our communities, and I was pretty devastated. Getting that email from Anita in July that this had moved from an idea to an actual plan that had potential, that was the only thing I could be hopeful about.”

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