1"Woman with the Red Kerchief," a stage production by playwright Wendy Lement and historian Firouzeh Mostashari, will have its world premiere Saturday at Newburyport's Maudslay State Park.
The play, which is being presented by Theater in the Open, is based on an episode in the life of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, which Tolstoy himself wrote about in at least three stories.
Lement, who directs the play, and Mostashari were colleagues on the faculty of Regis College in Weston. Lement is head of the college's Drama Department and Mostashari, until recently, was a historian.
When they decided to collaborate on "Woman with the Red Kerchief," Lement said, "we sat at a computer together and battled out every word."
Each had her own area of expertise to add to the blend. Mostashari is a Russian scholar and Tolstoy specialist who could keep an eye on historical accuracy. Lement is an experienced playwright who could make sure that the play retained its dramatic sense.
They submitted a 10-page scene breakdown in their proposal to Jeffrey Rath, artistic director of Theater in the Open. Lement has been associated with the theater-in-residence at Maudslay for more than 15 years and was its first education director. Theater in the Open has produced three of Lement's earlier plays.
With a go-ahead from Theater in the Open, Lement and Mostashari started writing in December. They had just six months to complete the piece; Mostashari and her husband were moving to Iowa, where he was going to be working, July 1.
The action in "Woman with the Red Kerchief" takes place on the eve of the emancipation of serfs in imperial Russia. Tolstoy realizes he has fallen in love with a serf on his estate, a 23-year-old married woman named Aksinia Bazykina.
The story is told from Aksinia's perspective, Lement said. A strong and spirited young woman with flashing eyes and flowing hair, Aksinia captures Tolstoy's imagination and, little by little, draws him into her world. The liaison slowly turns into an obsession for the novelist, who has begun to dress in peasant garb.
Even his marriage to Sonya Behrs, a social equal, is not enough to cure Tolstoy of his folly, as he begins to pursue his old love with renewed effort. Aksinia, meanwhile, has given birth to a son with a strong resemblance to Tolstoy himself. Sonya, Aksinia and Tolstoy are locked into a love triangle that resists the passage of time.
Rath will play Tolstoy, leading a cast of local actors who include Theater in the Open veterans Michael Thurston, Beth Randall and Jessica Rybicki. They will be joined by two Boston actors performing courtesy of Actors' Equity Association.
Lement is also the author of "Salem's Daughters," "King George III vs. Ruth Blay," and "Dolphins: The Myth of Persephone." Mostashari is the author of a historical work, "On the Religious Frontier: Tsarist Russia and Islam in the Caucasus."
Near the end of his life, Lement said, Tolstoy was thought of as nearly a saint in his native Russia. He said he wanted to be remembered as the complex man he was.
In "Woman with the Red Kerchief," Tolstoy gets his wish, Lement said.
"We're showing the good , the bad and the ugly," she said.
'Red Kerchief' cast
Jeffrey Rath of Newburyport, Leo Tolstoy
Jesica Corbo of Boston, as Aksinia
Matt Kiely of Newburyport, Andrei
Beth Randall of Newburyport, Dunyasha
Shelby Steeves of Newburyport, Valerya
Michael Thurston of Amesbury, Old Daniel
Jeff Larson of West Newbury, Ermil
Ashley Risteen of Byfield, Sonya Behrs
Jessica Rybicki of Amesbury as Mademoiselle Vergani
Kathleen Patrick Donohue of Boston (performing courtesy of Actors' Equity Association), Aunt Tatyana
Susan Lombardi-Verticelli of Boston, Mademoiselle Vergani
Paul Rivenberg of Boston, Ivan Turgenev
IF YOU GO
What: "Woman with the Red Kerchief" by Wendy Lement and Firouzeh Mostashari
When: Saturdays and Sundays through Sept, 28 at 2 p.m.
Where: Maudslay State Park, Curzon Mill Road, Newburyport
How Much: Tickets $8 adults, $5 students/seniors. However, admission to Saturday's opening afternoon performance is free.
Note: Allow a 10-minute walk to the play site. Performances go off rain or shine. Call 978-465-2572 or log onto www.theaterintheopen.org.