The flame illuminating the otherwise dark, complex world of Alice van Buren’s play “INK” is one Mary Rowlandson, a real woman who existed in 17th century colonial New England, and who became notorious for her written account of her kidnapping by Native Americans. How different the real Mary was from the one fictionalized in van Buren’s play is something no one will ever know, but in Penobscot Theatre’s world premiere production of the play, she’s a fascinating, almost anachronistic woman, ahead of her time.
She’s played with great intelligence by New York-based Aubrey Saverino, who undoubtedly is one of the finest actors to take the PTC stage in recent years. She provides the moral and emotional center to the play. Rowlandson is fiercely protective of her own beliefs and desires, guarding them from the Natives, from her husband, and from the opportunistic preachers and businessmen who try to co-opt her words and her life. Saverino gives a nuanced, naturalistic reading to a character pulled in multiple directions.
In reality, Rowlandson and the English-speaking Native, James Printer, who becomes her friend and eventual love interest, are the only truly likeable people in the play. Printer, played stoically by Dylan Carusona, is the only Native character, though historical figures like the famous King Phillip and his family, exist on the periphery. Other historical figures, like the conniving Increase Mather (played with great, dastardly relish by the ever-entertaining Ellsworth actor Bernard Hope) and his sniveling son Cotton (Greg Mihalik), are re-imagined as out-and-out villains.
Indeed, the historical setting of the play elicits a very contemporary response from the audience, who laughed at lines denigrating women and Natives, comfortably removed several centuries from such backwards attitudes. While “INK” was meticulously researched and workshopped by van Buren, it seems clear that her background is in academia, and not theater. Though the story is engrossing, and Mary is a truly memorable character, there are still segments of the play that fall a bit flat. The Greek chorus of gossipy, colonial townsfolk that appear periodically to further along the action feel a bit odd and incongruous, and at times, the cast stumbles over the archaic language.
It may be that “INK” is a play trying to exist in the same literary genre as “The Scarlet Letter,” or perhaps “The Last of the Mohicans.” But where both those stories were told by writers who were skilled at such narratives, “INK” still feels a bit like a work in progress. No matter how beautifully much of the cast performed, and what a powerful story it is, it’s a play that still needs some tweaking. Placing a finger on just what those changes might be is hard to do. All PTC’s audience can do is see it for themselves, and make up their own mind.