Merrimack Repertory Theatre -- the MRT -- turns the Big 4-0 this year.
In the beginning, Merrimack Regional Theatre was a scrappy start-up on a shoestring budget staging plays at UMass Lowell's Mahoney Hall. Over the years, it went from "regional" to "repertory," moved downtown to Liberty Hall, and refurbished a section in nearby Bagshaw Mill building into rehearsal offices/artist apartments overlooking the Concord River.
As it has grown, MRT has gained a stellar reputation, locally, regionally and nationally for creating excellent, entertaining work that's compelling and thought-provoking.
MRT's national stature has grown in the past three years, since Sean Daniels became artistic director and set a goal for the company to produce new plays by contemporary voices.
"Our goal was to diversify the work on stage and to empower people," said Daniels, who starts his fourth season here this fall. "Gender parity remains a goal of ours, and as the shows fell into place, it happened."
Five of this season's seven plays are written by women, beginning with season opener "Native Gardens." Written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Giovanna Sardelli, it runs Sept. 12-Oct. 7.
Daniels has high praise for "Native Gardens," which promises plenty of laughs even as it gives audiences lots to talk about after the show.
"One of the smartest plays out there today, it's about class and how we relate to our neighbors," Daniels said. "Our audiences will love it -- they enjoy a good time, but also like to chew things over afterward."
The play is about a millennial Latino couple who move in next door to an older, white, baby-boomer pair in Washington, D.C., and what happens when they find themselves at odds over gardening styles and a heated property-line dispute. It explodes into verbal jabs over race, culture, privilege and neighborly behavior.
Zacarias, a Washington, D.C.-based playwright, conceived the idea while listening to friends' stories of neighborhood fights.
"They talked about fights they'd had with neighbors -- how awful it was and how a battle can become a war," she said. "The audience can relate with similar stories, adding to the absurdity."
In addition, "Native Gardens" reflects today's national discord, again enhancing the energy.
Tickets start at $26 and are available at www.mrt.org or call the box office at 978-654-4678. Subscriptions available. In celebration of the 40th anniversary season, MRT is offering a limited number of "2 for $40" seats at all performances through the season using Promo Code Happy40th.
Season 40 highlights
Three world premieres, five female playwrights, a new play based on a Jack Kerouac "lost" work -- it's all here, and then some, as MRT starts its 40th season.
Here's artistic director Sean Daniels' take on the rest of MRT's big 4-0 season.
"Murder for Two," book & music by Joe Kinosian; book & lyrics by Kellen Blair
Oct. 17-Nov. 11
"One murder. Two actors. Six suspects. And one piano! A fun, two-person musical, and the stage will rotate. That's new for us, and the audience will be able to watch their hands.
"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley," by Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon
Nov. 28-Dec. 23
"A holiday treat for Jane Austen fans and the family, it's the holiday show everyone wants to see. An eight-person cast -- our largest -- with period costumes and sets. We'll also welcome back Veronika Duerr, who worked last season in Boston, and Vichet Chum, creator of 'KNYUM' last season."
"Slow Food," world premiere by Wendy Macleod
Jan. 9-Feb. 3
"Our funniest show of the year, it's Wendy's follow-up to 'Women in Jeopardy.' It's about a couple's encounter with a terror of a waiter and how everything goes horribly, ridiculously wrong."
"The Heath," world premiere by Lauren Gunderson
"It's the first time Lauren, the most produced playwright in America, has written about herself. It's the true story how she tries to connect with and make peace with her Georgia grandfather whom she loves but who is unlike her in every way."
"The Haunted Life," world premiere by Jack Kerouac, adapted by Sean Daniels
March 20-April 14
"Our season's centerpiece, it's an adaptation of Kerouac's lost novel, set in Lowell, and the coming-of-age story of college student Peter Martin and his relationship with his conservative father. We're working with Jim Sampas of the Kerouac Estate and UMass Lowell professor Todd Tietchen, who edited the manuscript."
"Cry It Out," by Molly Smith Metzler
April 24-May 19
"A new mom comedy and a really smart play about class and new moms. It's truly hilarious and takes an honest look at being home with a baby, going back to work and the impact of class on parenthood and friendship."
Happy 40th, MRT
Bonnie Butkas came on board as MRT's executive director last October and immediately set to work expanding the audience base.
"There are ups and downs, but we're on the upswing," said Butkas, who worked with Daniels at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., and was mentored by Tom Parrish, an MRT executive director in the 2000s who moved on to Geva.
With a strong development background, she's growing MRT's business and corporate support and creating support packages to interest them.
The 40th season offers great opportunities to celebrate the past and look to the future and affordability is key.
"We'll have $5 nights, student matinees and '2 tickets for $40' at every show in honor of the 40th," she said.
Community members will record "why I love MRT" curtain speeches that will be played before every show. And a big, black-tie gala will take place this spring, date and location TBA.
"Sean and I are committed to grow the organization, make it stable and share stories of our region and stage. This is an exciting place to be," she said.
MRT by the numbers
9-12-2018 --The opening date of MRT's 40th season
279 - Plush, red-velvet seats in MRT's Nancy L. Donahue Theatre in Liberty Hall
$200,000 -- MRT's annual budget in 1979
$2.9 million -- MRT's budget today
3,000 -- MRT's subscriber base
263 -- Plays that MRT has staged over 40 years
11 - How many years "A Christmas Carol" was produced
$750,000 -- Amount spent on 2012 theatre, lobby and box office renovations
5 - Artistic directors Mark Kaufman/John Briggs (founding co-artistic directors); the late Dan Schay, David Kent, Charles Towers, Sean Daniels
2 million - Audience members attending MRT shows over 40 years