Chance’s new one-woman play tells a true story of teenage courage and resilience
By Libby Nicolay
Up next in Chance Theater’s exciting 2023 Season will be “Matinicus: The Story of Abigail Burgess” by Jenny Connell Davis, a world premiere play based on the true story of a young heroine. “Matinicus” is an inspired exploration about selflessness, isolation and hope in the midst of a storm. The world premiere of "Matinicus" has opened at Chance Theater’s Bette Aitken theater arts Center.
Playwright Jenny Connell Davis quips she was “bit by the theatre bug” at such an early age, she didn’t learn to read “until I realized it was the only way to find out when the auditions were happening.” An actress first, Davis then began writing her own plays when she grew tired of the lack of dynamic, lead roles for women on stage. Since then, her plays and screenplays have amassed numerous awards and national recognitions.
Davis has remained a close collaborator of Chance Theater for many years, and “Matinicus” represents her latest commissioned work. The play is based on the true story of Abigail Burgess, a young Maine teenager known for tending to her family’s cherished Matinicus Rock Lighthouse during a treacherous month-long winter storm in 1856. She braved the devastating storm, surviving by taking refuge in the lighthouse and safeguarding her family, all while keeping the lighthouse burning bright.
The story of Abigail’s heroism is a local’s favorite. Children’s books entitled Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie and Abbie Against The Storm have been shared and retold across the region. Her picture often resurfaces during Women’s History Month. The U.S. Coast Guard christened a buoy tender boat named in her honor. Her family’s lighthouse still stands tall on Matinicus Rock even today. A native of Maine herself, Davis credits the play’s origins to her familial roots, having grown up not far from the titular lighthouse, which stands 25 miles off the coast of Rockland.
“Matinicus” features a cast of one, starring OCTG Award-nominated actress Aubrey Saverino as Abigail. Katie Chidester, the director of the production, spoke about the special opportunity to lead the rehearsal process with such a small and close-knit creative team. The rehearsal process is much more intimate, and they’re able to dive deeper into the story together. “It makes rehearsals feel sort of like hanging out and having fun,” she explained. Chidester also spoke highly of the luxury of having a great dramaturg on the team, Jenny Jacobs, whose research has given the team the historical context and insight needed to bring Abigail’s reality to life and connect it to Chidester’s vision for this production.
Both Davis and Chidester describe “Matinicus” as a “pandemic play”. It was written during a time of shared isolation, back when the word “quarantine” was heard ad nauseam. Davis wants Abigail’s story of isolation to tug on the familiar heartstrings of anyone who felt the heaviness of isolation during the pandemic years. “What she’s going through in this, in terms of the isolation,” Davis said, “is something that all of us had to go through at least to some degree. I’m curious as to what that brings up for people.”
For Chidester, the play represents “the sacrifices made for the betterment of our community, keeping each other safe, the loneliness, the isolation, and the uncertainty of what's going to happen,” all feelings that have felt so real to so many. She praised Davis’s visual, atmospheric writing that has helped ease her process and guide her and the team. “The action is immediate and dynamic,” she said of Davis’s script. “You feel as if you are right there, feeling the salt spray from the ocean and the sound of the wind.”
“Matinicus” has been workshopped before at Chance, back in 2022 as part of their OTR New Works Program, a sort of “test run” in front of an audience before this fully staged version. Davis mentioned the important role that a live audience can have in the development of a new play, and how “Matinicus” has changed since its initial reading. She says the play will continue to develop even now. “People will be seeing a very living document, and truly still - it won’t be done yet,” Davis said. “I’ll be paying a lot of attention to the audience response while I’m there, since this is the first time we’ll have seen it with any staging elements.”
Davis’s biggest hope is that audiences will walk away having considered what resonates with them about Abigail’s story, maybe not right away, but perhaps days or weeks after seeing the play. She hopes the community will feel comforted by the way we have all bravely forged ahead in spite of the pandemic - in the spirit of the great Abigail Burgess.
Although Davis doesn’t call herself optimistic - “I don’t want to say that I’m a cynic but, you show me a beautiful sky and I will point to the dark cloud on the edge of the horizon” - she surprised herself with how much hope lives in this play compared to much of her other work. She mentioned the value that a story rooted in hope can bring to the world, especially in the era we’re living in, full of deconstructing systems and unpacking social biases. She poignantly stated, “It doesn’t always have to be about taking something apart, it can be about giving people something that helps to build up instead.”
With its message of resilience and teenage determination, “Matinicus: The Story of Abigail Burgess” is a must-see bound to bring a fresh wind of hope-filled promise to the community. Don’t miss the chance to experience this world premiere play.
Libby Nicolay is a writer, literary manager, and local theater enthusiast working in the entertainment industry throughout Orange County.
‘Matinicus: The Story of Abigail Burgess’
@ Bette Aitken theater arts Center
5522 E. La Palma Ave, Anaheim, CA 92807
May 5 - June 4, 2023
(888) 455-4212, www.chancetheater.com