Stage manager Natalie Nicole had the bad news.
For weeks, the cast of Balagula Theatre‘s production of Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare had been hopeful the playwright, a Prospect native who spends her summers in Kentucky, might visit a performance. But before the final performance, the cast was told, she wasn’t coming.
“I didn’t believe it for a second,” said actor Pete Sears, who played Kabe, the heart of the dark comedy.
And as it turned out, his mistrust was well placed, for indeed, sitting in the front row for Wednesday night’s performance was Wallace, who is in Lexington for the Kentucky Women Writers Conference.
The theater was trying not to tell the cast so the players would not be nervous, though her appearance was a fairly poorly kept secret as Wednesday’s audience was loaded with Lexington cultural notables, including leaders from LexArts.
For Balagula Theatre, based at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar, it was the first time a playwright had ever visited a production of one its plays.
“It’s really wonderful to see that really good theater is being done in Kentucky outside of Louisville,” said Wallace, whose normal Kentucky venue is Actors Theatre of Louisville, where several of her works have had their world or North American premieres at the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Flea, which looks at class struggles in the context of the plague in 17th Century England, went on to great success after its 1996 Humana debut, winning the 1997 Obie Award for best play and being selected in 2009 for the permanent repertory of Comedie-Francaise, the French national theater.
Wallace said she has seen numerous productions of the play, though hardly all of them.
“I usually only hear about productions when they’re in major cities,” she said. “I wouldn’t have known about this one if Julie hadn’t told me,” she added, referring to Women Writers Conference director Julie Kuzneski Wrinn.
Clutching the bird-beaked, ersatz gas mask Kabe wore for part of the play, she said she was struck that director Natasha Williams, “found the humor in the script, because I think I write dark comedies. And I was really impressed that the cast was a real ensemble.”
Wallace gave high marks to Joe Gatton and Lisa Welch for navigating one of the play’s most difficult scenes, an awkward initial sexual encounter between poor sailor Bunce and the wealthy Darcy Snelgrave.
“I was as nervous as when my family comes to a show,” Welch said, when asked about performing for a playwright. “I have never done anything like that. I tried not to think about it.”
Balagula actually does have another playwright to think about, as it will be staging the world premiere of Keliher Walsh’s Year of the Rabbit in March. The production is part of Walsh’s reward for winning the Writers Conference’s Women Playwrights competition, which Wallace participated in as the final judge. A Kentucky-based panel including Williams, Balagula co-artistic director Ryan Case and Wrinn served as initial judges for the competition.
But Wednesday was the first time Wallace and the Balagula crew met.
“It’s a big night for us,” Williams said. “I appreciated that she accepted our interpretation and that she enjoys seeing different perspectives of the play. She’s really cool.”
And somebody said it wouldn’t happen.