Every playwright has his or her own skill set, the experience and knowledge that feed into the writing of a script.
For Christopher Demos-Brown, whose play Fear Up Harsh won him the Carbonell Award and a national ATCA/Steinberg Award citation, three things beyond his much-admired gifts as a writer helped shape his newest work.
Stripped, which will have its Zoetic Stage world premiere at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, focuses on Masha, a Russian “mail-order bride” working as a stripper to support her little girl Raisa. Something happens, and Child Protective Services moves in to strip Masha of her parental rights, placing Raisa with a childless couple.
In the play, Masha speaks Russian-accented English and some Russian. No problem for Demos-Brown, who majored in Russian in college and says, grinning, “This is my first gainful use of it.”
The legal stuff is no problem, either. Demos-Brown’s day job is as a lawyer. His wife, Stephanie Demos-Brown, is also his law partner, and for 15 years the two have represented children pro bono in dependency court. The cases, he says, “are all heartbreaking, awful cases.”
In Stripped, no horrors befall Raisa, though they might have. But Demos-Brown carefully calibrates his play so that the warring parties — fierce, suffering Masha and Raisa’s adoptive parents Emma and Nicholas — are all rich, full characters who have in common their love of the same child.
“I wanted to ask what makes for a good parent,” the playwright says. “Is it being willing to stand in front of a bus for your kid? Is it taking care of her and sending her to Cornell?”
Giving weight to each side, making the legal issues clear, getting the Russian right are all important in crafting a play that thoughtfully tackles issues. But, Demos-Brown says, ultimately, “you have to hit people in the heart and the gut.”
For Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer and his cast, Stripped does exactly that.
“This is a really complete, compelling story about timely, hot-button issues,” says Meltzer, who is directing his third Demos-Brown play for the company. “I thought he’d crafted something that could touch an audience. I know when I get one of his scripts it will be an incredibly whip-smart, compelling, at times funny and sardonic play.”
This ... reminds me of why I got into theater in the first place.
Lindsey Corey, Masha in ‘Stripped’
Lindsey Corey, a New World School of the Arts grad, is creating the role of Masha. To believably play a Russian, she has a dialect coach. To believably play a stripper, she has a pole-dancing coach. She also has to appear to have sex with Matt Stabile’s Zack, Masha’s drug-dealer boyfriend. Above all, she must play a mother who will do anything — anything — to get her daughter back.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. It reminds me of why I got into theater in the first place,” Corey says. “When I hadn’t read the play yet, I was concerned about why we should root for her. But you will. Chris has laid it out beautifully. Who’s right? A woman who will live and die for her daughter? Or the other couple, who can provide for her? You fall in love with Masha’s love for her daughter.”
Corey, who is married to Matt Corey, a Carbonell-winning sound designer and musician, and Stabile, an actor-director and playwright married to actor Niki Fridh, have to play an intense relationship from the get-go.
“I knew Lindsey, because she and Niki were in Exit, Pursued by a Bear at Arts Garage together,” Stabile says. “She’s a fantastic scene partner. Our roles require a lot of trust … Niki and I both get it. It’s a requirement of the role and the character.”
Actors Chaz Mena and Margot Moreland play two roles each in Stripped. Mena portrays Nicholas Pisaris, Raisa’s adoptive father, as well as the lawyer representing Masha. Moreland is a judge in child dependency court and also plays Emma Pisaris, the driving force in the couple’s decision to become foster parents, then adopt. Raisa is a toddler, unseen, for most of the play; Ava-Riley Miles plays the older Raisa in the final scenes.
Mena, who became a first-time father at 45, identifies deeply with that life-altering experience.
“What joy it is to give of yourself to another human being, to put yourself aside to tend to another person,” he says. “It makes you better at what you do, no matter what that is.”
Moreland is making her debut at Zoetic but has long relationships with her colleagues there. She and Mena went to the University of Miami together. She appeared in a play at New Theatre with Demos-Brown. Meltzer was a student working the spotlight when she appeared at Actors’ Playhouse during its early days in Kendall.
Working on a world premiere, she says, “is so wonderful. You can ask questions of the playwright. Chris writes such intelligent dialogue, and even the legalese is easy. For me, he leaves conclusions up to the audience. That’s an art. You walk out wanting to discuss the play.”
Makeba Pace, who is also making her Zoetic debut, plays Erica Peebles, the Child Protective Services attorney unafraid of facing down Judge Zimmer. In a case that precedes Masha’s, she argues passionately against reuniting two young children with the addict mother who left them alone in a sealed apartment for three days. As Pace has been working on Stripped, she has talked to lawyers, and she carries with her a recent story by the Miami Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller about the tragic case of 11-year-old Janiya Thomas, whose body was discovered in a freezer.
“Chris put in a line from Frederick Douglass in the play, and it hits me every time: ‘It is easier to raise a child properly than to fix a broken adult,’ ” Pace says. “I’m honored to do something that touches me, something that matters … Chris’ writing is in your face. But it’s what I see, and it needs to be acknowledged and talked about.”
If you go
What: ‘Stripped’ by Christopher Demos-Brown.
Where: Zoetic Stage production at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 22 (additional matinee 3 p.m. Nov. 7).
Information: Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.