BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England is subtitled "an academic sex comedy," and it's centered on Dean Wreen, whose small liberal arts college is in financial trouble.
While Wreen deals with a plan by school trustees to close the dusty old natural history museum on campus to clear the way for a ritzy new dorm, she juggles a pair of relationships.
"She has taken on a new lover who is considerably younger than her," said Martha Wilkinson, who plays the dean in the production of Madeleine George's play that opens this week at American Stage. "This is after having had a pretty hurtful breakup with her older lesbian lover. And now the older lover's cancer is back. The dean asks her to come live at the house with them so she can take care of her. Ex-lover and new lover under the same roof causes some issues."
Though lesbian characters are at the heart of George's play, which had its premiere in 2011 at a New Jersey theater, their sexuality is not necessarily its theme, said Wilkinson and director Karla Hartley over lunch during a break in rehearsal last week.
"They are people who happen to be lesbians," Hartley said. "It's not an angsty, coming out sort of play."
"It's very witty in the telling of a real situation and a real problem that is presented in a comedically honest way," Wilkinson said.
"It's a little West Wingy, a little Aaron Sorkiny, but without all the snarky stuff," Hartley said.
Playwright George knows the territory of small liberal arts colleges in New England well, having grown up surrounded by them in Amherst, Mass. She got a B.A. at Cornell University and now lives in Brooklyn. In April, she and her partner, playwright and performer Lisa Kron (whose 2.5 Minute Ride was performed last season at American Stage) were married.
Wilkinson, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., is making her debut at American Stage. She frequently performs at Tennessee Repertory Theatre, most recently as Fraulein Kost in Cabaret. She is an old friend of Todd Olson, the American Stage artistic director, but she and Hartley did not know each other. In February, to see if they would get along, the director, who was working on another show in Birmingham, Ala., arranged to meet with the actor halfway between Birmingham and Nashville, at a Panera Bread in Huntsville, Ala.
"We both drove a couple of hours and then just talked," Hartley said. "I knew she was talented, but I wanted to make sure that we could work well with each other, and it became clear that we could. So here we are."
For Wilkinson, Dean Wreen reminds her of a character from a '30s screwball comedy, like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. For Hartley, the dean is reminiscent of Bette Porter, the character played by Jennifer Beals in The L Word.
"I often get cast in roles that are for strong women, and this felt like a good fit for me," Wilkinson said. "It's an interesting challenge for me to get out of my safety zone in Nashville and come to Florida and do this smart play."
The cast also includes Stefanie Clouse as Andromeda, the dean's new lover, and Kim Crow as Greer, the ex-girlfriend who has cancer. This will be the second character with cancer played by Crow this season, having starred as a classics scholar with the disease in Wit at American Stage last fall.
"This is not really about the cancer thing," Hartley said. "The cancer is a device to get her back into the space with these other people. It's not Wit. It's about the conflict between past and present and how much of your history you are willing to shed in order to move forward."
Along with the relationship of the three women, Seven Homeless Mammoths also features the museum's caretaker, played by Brian Webb Russell, and a pair of figures called Early Man 1 and 2 (Vincent Stalba and Jonelle Meyer) in the museum's diorama.
"I have a great deal of respect for Madeleine George and how she's taken these three completely different worlds — the caretaker's office in the museum basement, the diorama and the house of Dean Wreen where the three women live — and melded them together," Wilkinson said. "Plus it's dang funny."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.