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40-Plus Stage Co. to present local playwright’s ‘Better Days’

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On Friday, 40-Plus Stage Company’s 2021-22 season begins with the first of three plays by local writers that will anchor the slate that also includes Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and Wendy Wasserstein’s “Third.”

At the Rhodes Arts Center’s Mountcastle Theatre, Mark Pirolo’s “Better Days,” directed by Sharon Andrews and stage managed by Jon Furr, will have a six-show run.

The cast of “Better Days” includes Geordie MacMinn (as Mitchell Price), Jackson Mattek (as Peter Kestler), Heather Jaynes (Kate Barnes) and Michael Hoch (as Ethan Barnes).

Pirolo, who also recently took the helm as artistic director for 40-Plus, has written a number of plays over his career, but picked up the pen again after a long hiatus as something to do during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I guess that you could really say that the pandemic was the reason for the expanded ‘Better Days,’ because I really couldn’t do anything else,” Pirolo said. “I was going stir crazy, and I thought, ‘What can I do, by myself, here in the house?’ I went back and pulled out a bunch of files and found a little one-act. It held up pretty well, to me, so I contacted a couple of friends — one of whom will be playing Peter in the production — and we did a Zoom reading of it.”

One of the founders of 40-Plus, John Hohn, and director Sharon Andrews were part of that process. “They loved it, and said I should finish the play,” Pirolo said.

“Better Days” started out back in the mid-‘80s as a one-act play.

“It was originally intended to be a part of a three-act play, but I never wrote the other two acts. Back in ’82 or ’83, we did film the one-act at the School of the Arts,” he said.

“Since then, I haven’t written anything for close to 25 years. Prior to that, though, I wrote a number of plays, most of which were done here in Winston-Salem. The last one that I did was in the late ‘90s,” Pirolo said. Much of that time was spent teaching at UNC School of the Arts.

“The original conception of the play completely went away,” he said. “The old ‘Better Days’ one-act is now basically a framing of the play, set in 1990. But we go back and watch what happens before it.”

Sharon Andrews, professor of acting and directing at Wake Forest University, has been part of the preparation of the new script for some time.

“I have had the great good fortune of discussing this play with Mark as it changed and grew over the last several months,” she said, “and I am very grateful for the opportunity to direct it.

“I think of ‘Better Days’ as a romantic drama, a love story. It offers a smart and compassionate look into a relationship between two complicated men navigating issues of love and trust,” Andrews said. “I love the way the play is structured, such that as it moves back and forth in time, the audience becomes more and more invested in the outcome of this relationship. The play is also tender and funny, and the playwright is brilliant at writing naturalist dialogue.”

Pirolo describes the play as a story of two men, one of whom is pushing 40, one of whom is in his early 20s.

“The play starts with the younger man showing up at the older man’s apartment, more or less breaking in. He then surprises the older man when the older man returns home. They’d had a relationship, but the younger man has been gone for three months without any word,” Pirolo said.

“We then go back to visit the relationship when it begins and grows, prior to the young man’s departure. Finally, we re-enter the ‘present’ where there is some sort of a resolution.”

Pirolo credits actor Jackson Mattek and the director with helping him to find the structure and the voices of the characters in the expanded script.

“Jackson and Sharon have had invaluable input,” he said. “Jackson’s voice often informed me of the younger man’s voice, and the voice of older Mitchell is mine. It has been a collaborative effort in many ways.”

As rehearsals continue, Pirolo has found the collaboration and working through the new structure of the longer play to be enjoyable.

“This has been, and continues to be, a wonderful experience,” he said. “I’m kind of rejuvenated, but anxious to get it off and running.”


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