Playwright Metzler brings ‘The May Queen’ home to Chautauqua

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
Mary Bacon, Joe Tippett and Greg Fallick celebrate some good news in a scene from the dress rehearsal of The May Queen Thursday in Bratton Theater.

When it came to actualizing The May Queen, playwright Molly Smith Metzler said she wrote about her hometown for her theater home: Chautauqua.

The resulting play, The May Queen, opens at 6 p.m. Saturday in Bratton Theater. Two shows follow on Sunday, at 2:15 p.m. and 8 p.m.

“I just feel so safe here and I just feel like there’s such a warmth here,” Metzler said. “I felt it was the right theater to finally write about Kingston.”

The May Queen tells the story of a former May Queen’s return to Kingston, New York, where past royalty are revered well beyond their reign. But the plot doesn’t revolve around prom dresses and crowns; instead it approaches high school retrospectively, as adults consider how their lives have unfolded since their teenage years.

“Is being chosen — is being the one who’s bestowed upon — is it more a curse?” Metzler said. “There’s a halo effect, where you think their life is better than yours, their life is more perfect than yours. They’ve gone on and stood in the sun and you can’t imagine that someone as beautiful and chosen to be a queen type of figure would have a difficult life.”

Chautauqua Theater Company and the Writers’ Center commissioned Metzler to develop the comedy specifically for Chautauqua audiences. Saturday’s opening will be its world premiere.

In telling Kingston’s story, the writer focused on remaining true to the heart of the “American city” she grew up in. Metzler described Kingston as a recessed, medium-sized city in the Hudson Valley, populated with hard-working people.

“A lot of what I reference is real,” she said. “I really tried to capture the spirit of it.”

CTC Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said the playwright’s intimate connection to the work made her invaluable in the play’s production.

“The world of Kingston and Kingston High School and the characters she’s written are so close to Molly,” Benesch said. “Having Molly there filling in all of those gaps has been a treat, so we can really honor the authenticity of that world.”

Metzler has worked on two new scripts at the Institution in the past, Close Up Space and Carve, during previous New Play Workshops. She said during her previous visits she fell in love with Chautauqua, and, while writing The May Queen, was devoted to bringing her “best self” to the audience.

“Instead of just picturing a random audience, I start to picture Chautauquans — who are a really specific audience. They’re more enthusiastic and engaged than other audiences, but they’re also a little more critical, in a good way. They’re smart. They have opinions,” Metzler said. “Writing a play with them in mind, it makes you bring your A-game.”

Writing a play with Chautauquans in mind also included collaborating with Benesch from the development stages of the process to its realization.

“To be involved from literally the idea forward is a really rare experience for a director,” Benesch said. “I feel like I have become a family member with these characters, and I’ve never had that experience with working on a play before.”

Metzler said that close work between director and writer impacted the final product.

“Vivienne’s held my hand from Page 15,” she said. “I’ve really spent a lot of time with her and I actually feel like it’s our baby.”

Like A Raisin in the Sun, the contemporary comedy focuses on the struggles of a family. The May Queen’s family is a voluntary one, a group of colleagues working in the same office pod. Trials and tribulations facing the group are both humorous and touching, according to many producing the play.

“Good comedy is rooted in sometimes dark truths,” said CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy. “Molly, this is her forte, this type of material, because it’s so truthful. It’s not just this comedy. You’re having a great time and then all of a sudden this reality hits you in the face.”

Actors have described the story as bittersweet, but Benesch and Corporandy said the play will likely be the feel-good production of the season.

“The ending makes me cry every time, and I’ve heard the play like 10 times now. I still just weep at the end,” said Kate Eastman, who plays Nicole Chee. “But it’s really funny. You’re going to laugh; you’re going to cry.”

Though this is the first chance to see the new work, Benesch is confident the play’s life won’t end with the Institution’s summer season. 

“This is a play that I truly believe will go on to a life after Chautauqua,” Benesch said. “It’s her best play to date.”