In 2014, Chicago-based playwright Brian James Polak noticed his hometown in New Hampshire was on the national news more often than usual.
That year, the Elm City found itself at the center of national attention more than once, with stories and videos on the riots the weekend of the Keene Pumpkin Festival, the Keene Police Department’s BearCat and the “Robin Hooders,” who followed Keene parking enforcement officers and put coins in expired meters.
“For the first time in my life, I had that thought, ‘Back when I was a kid, things weren’t like this.’ And then I realized, oh, my parents could say the same thing, and their parents could say the same thing, and their parents,” said Polak, who graduated from Keene High School in 1992. “And I realized that the change is what’s constant.”
It sparked an idea. And now, five years later, the Monadnock Region native — whose family still lives in Spofford — is working with two theater companies to debut a new play called “Welcome to Keene, N.H.”
Though Keene provides the setting, the play isn’t intended to be “biographical,” Polak said. Rather, the city is a vehicle to write about the small-town experience as communities across the country confront issues such as the opioid crisis, the rise of the alt-right and the prevalence of firearms, he explained.
And the inspiration is two-fold, Polak noted. He also wrote “Welcome to Keene, N.H.” as a “response and homage” to Thornton Wilder’s iconic work “Our Town,” which the famous playwright worked on during residencies at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough.
“The reason I think ‘Our Town’ has been produced over and over and over again for almost 80, 90 years now is because Thornton Wilder so perfectly created a blueprint for what it means to be a human being in the general sense,” Polak said. “... And when I wrote ‘Welcome to Keene, N.H.,’ I decided to write about what it means to be a human being today, right now, in America.”
As in “Our Town,” “Welcome to Keene, N.H.” is anchored by a narrator who guides the story. But Polak employs a Keene parking attendant to introduce the city’s cast of characters, from the Korean owner of a Chinese restaurant to a tennis coach with a “dark past,” as his website describes it.
To create the characters, Polak said he drew from his own experiences and memories without the intention of representing any specific individual in Keene — though the part of the narrator does have some basis in reality.
“The main inspiration for this character were those videos that were put on YouTube several years ago about the Robin Hooders of Keene harassing the parking officers,” he said. “I was so embarrassed when I saw those videos, and when those stories were making national news, it was really sad to watch, and it was really humiliating to say, ‘That’s my town where I grew up.’ ”
The play will premiere next year in productions by Strawdog Theatre in Chicago and PURE Theatre in Charleston, S.C., Polak said. For Sharon Graci, co-founding artistic director of PURE Theatre, the play stood out partly for its sharp, well-formed dialogue and partly for the way it calls back to “Our Town,” she said.
“I think what’s great about ‘Welcome to Keene, N.H.’ is, even though the location is specific, the forces in play within the community or within the town are not unfamiliar to most people,” she said. “Even if you live in a larger community, I think that they are very, very human conditions and very, very human wants and very, very human needs, and they are very much part of modern dialogue in our communities.”
Though at this point there are no specific plans to mount a production in Keene, Polak said he’d like to see the play performed here in the future.
“I think there are probably people that would be upset if Keene was portrayed in any negative way. But I wrote this play with a deep amount of respect for my hometown, and sensitivity. And it’s not specifically about Keene,” he said.
“It’s representative of the world at large, as I see it.”