When Jeff Talbott was writing his new play The Messenger, he had contemporary issues in mind, from political polarization to media bias to gender dynamics. But even he never could have predicted just how relevant the play would be.
Now a world premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company, The Messenger was previously seen at PTC as part of the company’s Play-By-Play series, which stages public readings of new, developing works. In fact, the play was the last thing on PTC’s stage before the pandemic upended live theater. For Talbott, this was an especially surreal moment, as The Messenger follows a small town that begins to unravel in the face of a rapidly spreading public health crisis. “The play and our current world are so intertwined in ways that I never anticipated or intended,” he says.
Talbott, working with director Wes Grantom, first found inspiration in Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play An Enemy of the People. Though the final product still follows the basic outline of Ibsen’s work, Talbott decided to take his play in a new direction. “I sat down to start that process and pretty instantly abandoned just a straight adaptation of his work,” he says. Still, Talbott still aimed to replicate Ibsen’s mix of social commentary and engrossing interpersonal drama with his own interpretation. “He was so interested in exploring serious issues in an entertaining way,” Talbott says of Ibsen.
The Messenger follows Therese Stockman (Ora Jones), a respected doctor in a small Norwegian town. Her brother, Mayor Peter Stockman (Mark H. Dold,) is thrilled to open the town’s baths, a natural spa that will revitalize the economically depressed town. Therese, though, has made a troubling discovery—she believes that a recent string of unexplained illnesses can be linked to a problem with the baths. When she shares this news with Kristine Hovstad (Meredith Holzman), the editor of a local newspaper, a passionate debate explodes about the power of the press and everyday corruption.
Though The Messenger addresses present-day concerns using contemporary language, Talbott maintained the source material’s 19th century setting. He also changed two of the central characters to be played by female actors. (“Presenting a play with a bunch of men on stage yelling at each other is not a useful use of theater currently,” he said.) This choice allows Talbott to depict the challenges faced by women in power, both in 1882 and 2022. Talbott was especially interested in exploring the interaction between journalists and the public. “I really wanted to focus on our relationship with the press when dealing with a crisis,” he said. The Messenger depicts what happens “when a group of people start picking and choosing not only what information they take in, but who they talk to about the information that they take in.” In an age of increased polarization and misinformation, the questions Talbott raises are especially timely.
Though Talbott wrote the play before the COVID-19 pandemic, the subject matter carries an eerie relevance in 2022. “We happened to develop it in March , when a health crisis was developing in this nation,” Talbott says. Though certain lines in the production may feel like direct commentary about the pandemic, Talbott insists that these moments were always a part of his work. “None of it has changed since last March. It all was there in the play before any of this hit.” In fact, he chose to play down the public health subject matter: “I don’t want audiences to be distracted by any trauma,” he said.
As the characters face debates that we’re still having 140 years later, Talbott intends for the audience to leave with more questions than answers. “What I really love is if the lights come up at the end of the play and I can see people turn to the person next to them and start talking about what just happened.”