“The Basketmaker,” opening this weekend at Olympia Little Theatre, is a rare exception. It wasn’t even written by an established playwright.
The historical drama was created by Dr. David Baughan, an area physician. He’s a published author, but this is the first time one of his plays has been produced. It also is the first time in at least a decade that the theater company has tackled a locally written story.
“We often have plays submitted by local authors, and sometimes they are very good,” said Toni Holm, who is on the theater’s board. “But this one had a great subject. It had a real polish to it that is not often found with first-time playwrights. We moved heaven and earth to get it into the season.”
Both “The Basketmaker” and the theater’s last play, “Sea Marks,” were given three-week runs instead of the company’s typical four to make space for an extra production.
The play, set in 18th-century New Hampshire, tells the story of a girl who is having strange experiences – ones that upset her mother even more because of mysterious circumstances from her own past.
“She’s talking to the animals and talking to the trees. The spirit of the woods that they are living in speaks to her,” the playwright said. “You might say she is psychotic, or is she in tune with the spirits of the natural world?”
Then they meet a Native American basketmaker – played by tribal basketmaker and storyteller Harvest Moon – who has a completely different view of what is happening. “The basketmaker tells her how such abilities are respected and honored in her tradition,” Baughan said.
Does Baughan, as a doctor, see it that way?
“The spiritual dimension is extremely powerful in our health,” he said. “To explore and develop your spiritual side is a huge resource for health and fulfillment.”
Baughan, who’s directing the play and even has a bit part in it, said his experiences in medicine inspired the story. He wrote it in 2003, while working in New Hampshire.
“If there is a traumatic experience in someone’s youth, the long-term effects of it might not show up until their 30s or 40s,” he said. “That is intriguing to me as a family physician. We’re looking at what might have happened to the mother when she was a child.”
He also is interested in the truth behind mass hysteria, he said. “When there is an epidemic in a school that looks like food poisoning and it turns out to be hysterical, the first person who was unwell usually had a genuine medical condition. Then something triggers mass hysteria, which overshadows the experience of the first person.”
While this is the first time the play has been produced, “The Basketmaker” won an award at the 2003 Moondance Festival in Boulder, a feminist film and theater festival, and an honorable mention in a playwriting contest at the 2004 Humboldt State Eco-Drama Festival.
Baughan, who works at Group Health, is the author of the novel “Sophia’s Journey,” which Amazon.com reviewers compared favorably to “The DaVinci Code.”
He appeared last year in the theater’s production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile” but hasn’t directed since college.
“It’s been fascinating to see it unfold as the actors grow into the characters,” he said of his play. “We see where we need to modify lines because they don’t come out right, or change stage business to make it more theatrical. It’s been a really gratifying part of the creative process.”