For several years, Travis Baker made the near-daily commute down Route 202, on his way from his home in Orono to Unity College, where he taught English. Seasons came and went; traffic ebbed and flowed. One of the only constants were the blue tarps scattered on the front lawns, covering up whatever junk the owners didn’t feel like throwing away.
“I kept thinking, ‘What are people hiding underneath those blue tarps?’” said Baker, who is also an adjunct English professor at the University of Maine. “What is it that you can’t get rid of, that you put it on your front lawn and cover it up with a tarp?”
Baker’s always been one to think about human nature. He spent 10 years writing plays and having them produced in New York, in both independent and off-off-Broadway theaters, before moving to Orono in 2004 with his wife, Holly, shelving playwriting in favor of teaching.
The confluence of those things — hours in the car with a mind free to roam, learning about Mainers through his students, and the nagging desire to write another play — resulted in “One Blue Tarp,” which will have its world premiere this weekend at the Penobscot Theatre Company, directed by Orono native and Portland Stage Company literary and education manager Dan Burson.
“One Blue Tarp” was named the 2013 Best Play for Maine in the prestigious Clauder New England Playwright Competition, was a finalist in the 2011 Eugene O’Neill Playwright’s Workshop, and the audience favorite at PTC’s 2010 Northern Writes New Play Festival. It’s his first play in nearly ten years, and, like riding a bike, it all came back to him quickly.
“It had been a little while, yes, but it felt good to write this play,” said Baker. “We’ve been working on it for several years now, to get it ready to have a full production. I’m feeling really good about it.”
Baker got his start writing plays when he was a student at the University of Houston, after he took a workshop with legendary playwright Edward Albee. He eventually moved to New York in the mid-1990s, where he worked for the Signature Theatre Company and worked with playwrights like Arthur Miller, Sam Shepherd and Horton Foote. His 1997 play, “Cold” was selected for the New York Fringe Festival. His 1999 play, “Sex and Violence,” and his 2003 play, “God and Mr. Smith,” were both produced off-Broadway.
Where his other plays were funny but often dark and edgy, “One Blue Tarp” is a much more lighthearted affair. It tells the story of one man, David, played by UMaine theater professor Tom Mikotowicz, who refuses to remove from his front lawn the enormous pile of stuff that’s covered up by a huge blue tarp. David lives in the fictional Maine town of Clara, where he finds he’s at odds with his neighbors and town officials over his unsightly tarp.
Those neighbors include Gail Pritchard (Irene Dennis) and her daughter, Hester (Kat Johnson) who have moved to Clara “from away” and have lobbied to have a town ordinance passed to disallow tarped junk piles. David’s wife, Joan (Julie Arnold Lisnet), daughter, Judy (Brianne Beck) and grandson, Buddy (10-year-old Ian Buck), are caught in the crossfire.
“David does not want anyone to change the way he’s always done things,” said Baker. “But his neighbors want to turn the town into this quaint, idyllic place. How they work it out is what gives it it’s humor.”
Baker, 43, is keenly aware of the fact that he’s “from away” — he grew up in Texas and then lived in New York — and that Mainers, ever prideful of their identity, will have their ears trained for any note of inauthenticity. But Baker says he learned about Maine from the wide array of different kinds of students he’s taught over the years, at Unity College, the University of Maine and Eastern Maine Community College.
“These were all really different kinds of people, with different backgrounds and ways of speaking,” said Baker. “It was through them that I came to understand Maine. I think it’s a fair portrait.”
“One Blue Tarp” will have performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, from Jan. 30 through Feb. 16, except for Saturday, Feb. 1, when the performance will be at 5 p.m. For tickets, visit penobscottheatre.org or call 942-3333.
The Bangor Daily News is a sponsor of Penobscot Theatre Company.