Gladys in the balance

A screengrab from No Promises; clockwise from top left, Duchess Dale, Talia Pura, Sarah Runyan, and Mairi Chanel

In Talia Pura’s one-act play, No Promises, Marybeth visits her mother, Gladys, for the first time in many years. They’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and they find themselves bickering about President Donald Trump.

A March production of No Promises was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, and now, Pura is doing two things she never could have anticipated before 2020. She’s putting live theater online. (Or she’s attempting to. She calls it “an experiment.”) And she’s waiting until the last possible moment to revise No Promises. Assuming that the results of the presidential election would be delayed by at least a week, she didn’t have much choice. There’s more to the story than right versus left, but it’s a critical element.

“It was definitely written to be done long before the election,” Pura says in an Oct. 30 interview. At the time, she figured that she had about two more weeks before she had to make final revisions and give the script to the cast. “Even if Trump wins again, it still has to be tweaked. I have to know how his supporters are talking after, in order to see what Gladys has to say.”

No Promises is one of three short plays by Pura that she combined into an evening of theater called 3x3, because each play features three characters. The plays premiere live on Zoom at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20.

No Promises is the longest of the plays, with the most complex plot and characters. The Appointment and Everything in Moderation bracket it as tragedy and comedy, respectively. All three have a kind of straightforward intimacy that seems potentially ideal for the flattened, screen-based medium of Zoom. In the pre-pandemic era, the plays could have been performed on a black-box set. Now, they’ll fall somewhere between a reading and a fully staged production.

At the end of October, Pura and the cast were still determining who felt safe acting in the same space. “It’s a bit of a trick to see if we can make it feel like they’re connected in some way. I’m going to make all of it feel as live and as present as possible,” she says. Actors will face each other in conversation, and she’s toying with the idea of merging backgrounds and finding reasons for cast members to “pass” objects between them, which will make it seem as if they were in the same place.

“What I don’t want is the actors ignoring the camera,” she says.

Husband-and-wife co-stars Eric and Amber Devlin don’t have to worry about social distancing to rehearse most of The Appointment, which is about an older couple waiting to see a doctor. The Devlins have been acting together for 30 years. They met at an audition for Molière’s Tartuffe in New York and began dating soon after. Although quarantining hasn’t been especially difficult for the retired schoolteachers, they say that jumping back into rehearsing The Appointment, from where they left off last spring, has certainly livened up their days, despite the serious plot. The play’s theme of personal autonomy in the face of mortality is especially resonant for them because they watched both of their mothers die from difficult, lingering illnesses.

“It’s not easy to talk about death with your spouse,” Amber Devlin says.

In the third play, Everything in Moderation, upper-crust couple Susan and Glen’s routines have been disrupted by Glen’s recent retirement. “This one is just silly,” says Pura, who plays Susan. “I wanted to explore two people who’d been together long enough that they never listen to each other. I love the idea of parallel conversations, and then when they finally intersect, she’s surprised that he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

Similar cross-purposes are at play in No Promises. Marybeth tries to communicate authentically with her mother, but it’s difficult to penetrate Gladys’ emotional defenses. She’s stuck in the past, still hung up on why her daughter’s marriage ended 15 years earlier, and very worried about the opinions of her church congregation. She’s particularly concerned about the gay and lesbian agenda, which she’s heard targets Christians by forcing bakeries run by the devout to make wedding cakes against their will. She also believes Christmas has been canceled.

Although there certainly are Trump supporters with more nuanced views of social problems, Pura says Gladys is simply espousing the same talking points as Fox News and those who post on social media. But the real-life outcome of the presidential election could fundamentally change the fictional character’s trajectory.

“How would she feel about Trump losing?” Pura asks, musing over possibilities for the rewrite. “Would she be devastated? Maybe she admits that she didn’t vote for him a second time. Or is she angry, assuming the world is going to hell because he lost?” ◀

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