PORTLAND, Maine — A family drama steeped in Maine history unfolds at Portland Stage this month. Though not an autobiography, “Papermaker” by Monica Wood derives from the writer’s credo: write what you know.
“I’ve been thinking of my parents a lot lately, so it’s possible I did write this for them,” said Wood.
Growing up in Mexico in a family of millworkers — her father, grandfather and brother all worked at Oxford Paper Mill in Rumford — she understands the bitter threat of labor disputes.
“The word ‘strike’ was something that you feared,” said Wood. “The introduction of replacement workers permanently changed the balance of power.”
“Papermaker,” her first play, takes place during a months-long paper mill strike in the late 1980s in Maine, told through the eyes of a mill executive and the contrasting view of a family of millworkers. The play examines the unraveling of a community and the breach of a core American contract.
“It’s the beginning of the end of the middle class,” said Wood, who like many children growing up in the mill towns of Maine and across America, witnessed the pain first hand.
After weeks embroiled in labor disputes, the main characters in “Papermaker” have an encounter.
“They are forced to face each other in a crisis,” said Woods, who wrote the play in part because “the working class is underrepresented in American theater.”
The two-act play is not a political diatribe but an examination of society then and now.
“I hope people may see themselves in the journey of the two families. And have empathy for the human condition,” said Wood. “For our friends, our enemies, everyone.”
To instill that empathy she took the actors on a field trip, essentially back home.
Recently, the “Papermaker” cast toured Catalyst Paper Company in Rumford where Wood’s father worked. They saw the machinery of a large paper company in action, met workers and internalized details such as what a paper plant smells like. Wood, who grew up seeing plays at the Portland Stage and has lived in Portland for 37 years, couldn’t ask for a more fitting venue to debut her inaugural play.
And the feeling is mutual.
Staging true-to-life stories is the role of a vital theater company says Portland Stage artistic director Anita Stewart.
“We should be finding work that addresses issues and looks at what’s going on in our state,” said Stewart. “We are trying to play more of a leadership role. I want to call attention to that fact we should be part of the discussion of issues that are relevant.”
Wood’s story resonates now more than ever.
“Shareholders, who expect profit above all else, make it difficult for companies to continue to employ American workers and pay them what they’re worth.” said Wood. “In my opinion, refusing to outsource is an act of patriotism.”
“Papermaker” runs April 21 to May 24 at Portland Stage, 25 A Forest Ave., Portland. For tickets, call 774-0465 or visit www.portlandstage.org.