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Brunstetter digs deep for multilayered ‘Widow’

Tommy Hicks Meghan Reardrehearse scene from Collaboraction’s producti“Be Good Little Widow” which begins performances Sept. 8. | John J. Kim

Tommy Hicks and Meghan Reardon rehearse a scene from Collaboraction’s production of “Be a Good Little Widow,” which begins performances Sept. 8. | John J. Kim ~ Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:42AM

When playwright Bekah Brunstetter was given her first commission by the New York theater group Ars Nova, she admits to a “few months of intellectual paralysis.”

“I wanted to give them something they would love and produce,” Brunstetter said. “And I struggled with what that would be.”

The play she would end up writing — “Be a Good Little Widow” — was born out of two thoughts that were rumbling around in Brunstetter’s mind: a sudden fear of flying and the fact that she had never been to a funeral of someone she loved.

“I wondered if I had the emotional maturity to deal with that,” Brunstetter, 29, recalled.

Expanding on this, she would cover territory familiar to herself and her friends — the hesitations and fears of unmoored twentysomethings.

“Be a Good Little Widow,” which debuted last spring at Ars Nova, receives its Chicago debut at Collaboraction under the direction of artistic director Anthony Moseley.

Brunstetter’s title character, Melody (Meghan Reardon), is still looking for her place in life. Recently married, she’s moved to the Connecticut hometown of her lawyer husband, Craig (Tommy Hicks), who is away on weekly business trips. With too much time on her hands, she goes to yoga, organizes her sweaters by color and watches reality television.

The only people she knows are her judgmental mother-in-law Hope (Susan Fay), and her husband’s paralegal, Brad (Christian Kane Blackburn). When Craig dies in a plane crash, Melody and Hope clash and eventually bond over their loss.

“What connected with me was Bekah’s writing which is refreshingly honest and authentic and comedic,” Moseley said. “It starts like a sitcom but then reveals itself to be deeply layered. You really fall into the story and care about the characters.”

Moseley also feels Brunstetter accurately portrays “how our minds work in moments of tragedy.” She says music and humor were important elements in helping her accomplish this.

“I was thinking a lot about how people use music to access their emotions,” Brunstetter said. “And I can’t write anything that doesn’t let us laugh at the characters and let the characters laugh at themselves. People say and do ridiculous things, and they find the humor in a sad situations.”

Brunstetter, who first found success with her 2009 play “OOHRAH!” at New York’s Atlantic Theatre, grew up in North Carolina in a “strong Southern Baptist, Republican family.” She wrote her first play in her freshman year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“I was lucky to have my plays produced at UNC, but, in reality, I had no idea what I was doing,” said Brunstetter, who would go on to study playwriting at the New School for Drama.

A year ago, Brunstetter, who’s considered one of the up-and-coming New York playwrights, quit her corporate day job to concentrate on teaching and writing full-time. She is working on several new plays and will travel to Russia to see an earlier work, “Miss Lily Gets Boned,” translated into Russian.

“I feel very lucky on a daily basis that I can pursue what I love doing,” Brunstetter said. “The company I worked for recently folded, so in these economic times a job as playwright has turned into the more stable choice.”

 “Be a Good Little Widow” begins performances Sept. 8 and continues through Oct. 23 at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1575 N. Milwaukee. For tickets ($15-$25), call (312) 226-9633;

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