Playwright Mickle Maher makes a strong impression

Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler is unstinting in his praise for mercurial Chicago playwright Mickle Maher.

"I think Mickle's work is probably the single best-kept secret, among many well-kept secrets, in the American theater," Nodler says. "I do my part to spread the gospel."


Nodler certainly does. He introduced Houston audiences to Maher's work with Catastrophic's memorable area premieres of "The Strangerer" and "Spirits to Enforce," both in 2008, and "There Is a Happiness That Morning Is" in 2010 – brought back for a well-deserved encore earlier this year.

Now, Nodler is going one better, as he readies Catastrophic's first world premiere of a Maher play, "The Pine," opening Friday. Maher's latest is commissioned for the adventurous Houston company with support from the Map Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes new work.

Anyone who attended Catastrophic's previous Maher outings will confirm his is one of the most original voices writing today, in any medium. Each of those plays proved unique – a freshly original, blessedly unpredictable experience.

"The Strangerer" re-imagines a George W. Bush-John Kerry presidential debate as a surreal encounter filtered through the perspective of existentialist author Albert Camus.

"Spirits to Enforce" portrays a dozen phone-bank operatives – who turn out to be a mythic metropolis' financially strapped team of superheroes, trying to raise the funds for their planned production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

"There Is a Happiness" depicts two middle-aged professors, fellow William Blake scholars, whose passion for Blake's poetry and each other has so overwhelmed them that they have, well, done the deed – in the altogether – right on the campus green for all to see. In hopes of saving their jobs, each must each formulate a persuasive defense and/or apology before their respective classes. Dotted with quotations from Blake, the entire play unfolds in rhymed couplets.

Can you name any other dramatist who would have even thought of these plays?

Maher combines seemingly incompatible elements in ways that, once you've experienced the play, somehow make perfect sense. He manages to make his curious situations resonant, surprisingly funny and unexpectedly touching.

"I always say that to experience Mickle's plays is like peeling a magical onion," Nodler says. "Fresh magic lays beneath each skin, and once it's been peeled to its bottom, you find it's reconstituted itself into something more akin to a whole pomegranate. And you never see it coming. I think he is always doing something new, not the sort of writer who ever repeats himself.

"I love his plays because they make me laugh from a place very deep within and they break my heart, both. That to me is what poetry is, what music is, and what the best of theater is."

Nodler was hooked from the moment he read one of Maher's scripts at the suggestion of director Alex Harvey, who was directing Miki Johnson, Nodler's partner, in Stages' "Mr. Marmalade."

"I was skeptical because I'm obsessed with politics but not political plays," Nodler recalls. "Alex said, 'Just read it.' He sent a copy home with Miki one night after rehearsal – the book including both 'The Strangerer' and 'Spirits to Enforce.' I was so blown away by the first that I had to read the second. And I promptly replaced whatever we had coming up in Catastrophic's schedule with not one of the plays, but both."

Those productions confirmed that Maher's distinctive content was a perfect fit not only for Nodler as director, but also for Catastrophic's team of theater artists who have developed into a creative family through so many shared projects.

"Our work is a theater of feeling, not so much one of thinking," Nodler says. "When someone tells me, 'That play really made me think,' I always say thanks and accept the sentiment. But what I really want, what we want as a group, is to make people feel something – to provide an opportunity in our work for personal associations in our audience. Mickle has a way of making that happen and that thing he allows for is the thing that our company exists to do."

After Maher paid two visits to Houston to attend Catastrophic's productions of his work, he and Nodler discovered many shared interests, and friendship ensued.

"I asked him if he'd be willing to apply with us (for a Map Fund grant for new works), and we got the grant," Nodler says. "And Mickle said, 'Well, I guess now I have to write the damn thing.' I told him to write whatever he wanted to write, as there was little danger in that – since he's never written anything I didn't love."

Maher has rooted "The Pine" in a haunting (and haunted) premise. Set in the ghost of an old hotel, a way station between life and death, the play follows sorrowing hero Gordon as he tries to rescue his girlfriend, Danelle, who's committed suicide. Trying to follow in her footsteps, Gordon finds himself trapped in a magical hotel of infinite rooms, each more sorrowful than the last – because the hotel is the last stop for souls who have lost their greatest loves and can never cease grieving. He is tasked with finding Danelle and breaking the spell over the hotel, so the two of them can "check out."

"The Pine" is another Maher play inspired by an iconic literary figure – in this case, America's greatest and most profound poet, Emily Dickinson.

"One of her key themes was grief, sorrow, pain," Maher says. "And, particularly, her conviction that time does not dispel them – that grief and pain are not healed by time. That's the issue the protagonist faces. So Dickinson is a big influence, maybe not in as transparent a way as Blake's poetry influenced 'There Is a Happiness That Morning Is.' But those who know her work will catch some of the references. (Dickinson's) collected poems have been my mousepad writing this one."

Not surprisingly then, "The Pine," like "There Is a Happiness," unfolds as a continuous flow of verse.

Maher says the play also draws from more personal taproots.

"It reflects my growing up, my family's summers on the shores of Lake Michigan," Maher says. "The setting is a fictional town based on the place we stayed, a place very emotionally resonant for me. When I started to work on it two years ago, I wanted to get back to childhood memories. I was raised in Kalamazoo, in a typical American middle-class family, but with a lot of different things going on. My father was an anthropologist and he'd come back from trips with strange masks and stories of the people."

What's emerged from this mingling of Dickinsonian inspiration, Maher's creativity and echoes of his family and childhood is, in the view of its director, "a sad play with a happy ending."

"It's heartbreaking yet also extraordinarily funny," Nodler says. "Layer upon unlike layer unite in the end to take an immensely complicated fairy tale and make it true. But when it comes to Mickle's plays, that's pretty much always the way."

So far as Maher remaining one of theater's best-kept secrets, acclaimed productions of his work off-Broadway and at such prestigious companies as Chicago's Steppenwolf should bring a sea change in that respect.

"Mickle's work is being done more and more," Nodler says, "not because of anything I've said, but just because work that great can't go on being under-produced for long. That his work still is not well-known to everyone working in theater, though, is a real sin."

"On the other hand," Nodler adds, "that means that he's available to write a world premiere for us – so I certainly can't complain."