Christy Montour-Larson had plenty of logical reasons to turn down a directing gig with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company.
When the opportunity to direct the BETC’s production of Melissa James Gibson’s drama “This” arose, Montour-Larson’s schedule was full. She already had back-to-back obligations with the Curious Theatre and Denver Center Theatre companies. An acclaimed veteran of the local theater scene, Montour-Larson had picked up plenty of work for the spring.
But the regional premiere of Gibson’s drama about five Generation Xers struggling with the pitfalls and pressures of middle age was just too good to pass up.
“I couldn’t turn it down,” Montour-Larson said. “The play is so beautiful and smart and funny, the characters are so rich and real … It’s a character comedy with nuanced performances.”
The play follows Jane, a widowed single mother and aspiring poet; Marrell and Tom, a married couple facing serious strains on their relationship; Alan, a gay man looking for purpose, and Jean-Pierre, a successful doctor and the one character who’s exempt from the existential questions that rack the rest of the cast.
Those kinds of fluid and indefinable questions drive the action in the show and inspired its nonspecific title.
“Gibson says ‘This’ is that which cannot be articulated. Everyone has a ‘This,’ but it’s changing all the time,” Montour-Larson said. “It’s the elephant in the room. It demands our attention.”
In this case, the characters’ separate questions of ‘This’ have a lot to do with their age and their background. Montour-Larson sees the drama as a generational portrait, an updated take on the nostalgia and crisis of the 1983 film “The Big Chill.”
“That film looks at people backing up into middle age in the early ’80s. The world has changed a whole lot since then,” Montour-Larson said. “Generation X witnessed the end of the Cold War, the AIDS epidemic, the Internet. They have a lot more choice.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the Generation X culture.”
Gibson illustrates those tricky questions through her talent for stunning dialogue and vivid characters. The winner of prestigious prizes such as the Obie, the Whiting Writers’ Award and the Steinberg Playwright Award, Gibson has earned acclaim for her poetic flair for dialogue and her deep understanding of character-driven comedy.
“This” fits that profile precisely. The qualities appealed to Stephen Weitz, BETC’s artistic director, when he was planning the company’s eighth season, a lineup that’s already featured world premieres such as “And the Sun Stood Still” and favorites that include “The Santaland Diaries,” which ran at the Galleria Theatre in Denver.
Partly because of its incisive and poetic style, “This” fit into a season that featured a drama about Copernicus and a comedy about a Macy’s Christmas elf.
“It’s almost like looking at a music score,” Weitz said. “It’s got this structured, evocative musicality. I just thought it was so unique and alive.”
More important, the piece that premiered in 2009 at New York’s Playwright Horizons theater fit a standard that has been in place since Weitz launched the BETC with his wife, Rebecca Remaly, in 2006.
There’s universality and access in the struggles and crises here. Whether they’re tackling questions of mortality, fidelity or purpose, these characters face conflicts that are bound to resonate with an audience.
“I want a story that really speaks to our experience, no matter when it took place,” Weitz said. “It deals with much bigger issues of marriage and death and infidelity … That spans beyond the generation of the characters.”
To explore these themes, Weitz and the rest of the BETC crew reached out to a new creative crew. The show is Montour-Larson’s premiere with the company, and the five-person cast features three actors making their debuts with the BETC. The crew also includes brand-new designers.
“We’re always trying to expand our staple,” Weitz said. “We want to bring in the best theater folks in the region.”
With quality material such as “This” in the company’s creative arsenal, it’s impossible for those folks to refuse.