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Playwright delves into dark side of dating with `Boy Gets Girl'

It's every urban woman's nightmare: the blind date who turns into a stalker.

Rebecca Gilman wasn't looking to do a "political" play before she wrote the ominously titled "Boy Gets Girl," which began previews last night at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. But when a friend of hers was stalked and had to change her name, the idea, she says, "got lodged in my head." The idea was given further weight when she read an article about women who were victimized by boyfriends or ex-husbands who were policemen. The protective measures advised, she says, "went so quickly from `get an unlisted phone' to `change your name' -- it seemed so drastic."

Gilman, who speaks in a soft Alabama drawl, doesn't sound like someone who would write shocking stories, such as the one about the lost Southern waif in "The Glory of Living," who helps her husband pick up, rape, and murder young women. (Actually, waif-girl pulls the trigger.) And Gilman says she doesn't have an appetite for violence.

"I don't like violence in film, and when I write it on the stage you don't see it," she says. "I think it's more powerful when you appeal to people's imaginations."

Over the last few years, Gilman, 39, has appealed to a lot of people's imaginations. Her plays have been produced at Lincoln Center, the Public Theater, the Manhattan Theatre Club, as well as in Chicago, Seattle, and at London's Royal Court Theatre. She's won a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays; she was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for "The Glory of Living." She holds an MFA in playwriting from the University of Iowa.

As a child in Trussville, Ala., (pop. 2,500), she grew up reading novels and writing short stories and poetry.

"I started writing skits," she says. "I enjoyed it so much more that at some point I stopped writing everything else. I was hearing dialogue and wanted to see things in all their dimensions, rather than describing."

Six years ago, she was an office temp trying to get her plays mounted. Gilman racked up 150 rejection letters until the Circle Theatre, a small Chicago company, did "The Glory of Living." The play's notoriety perked up the ears of the Goodman Theatre, also in Chicago.

"I was knocked out by it," says Robert Falls, the Goodman's artistic director. "We quickly offered her a commission to work on a play for us. The play she turned in, six or seven months later, was `Spinning into Butter.' It was a sensation for us." The company has since offered Gilman several more commissions.

"She has an ability to take a subject that on first glance appears to be like a movie of the week -- `Spinning into Butter' was about institutional racism on college campus; `Boy Gets Girl' a stalker -- but then has this tremendous soul, wit, and intellectual acumen and ability to create characters that are full, rich, and 3-D," Falls says.

Susan Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, who has produced several of her plays, says: "What's remarkable about her writing is how seamlessly she bends the personal and polemic. She's always political and yet her plays always have a deeply personal, conversational tone; they never feel like rhetoric. There are very few writers doing that as skillfully as she is."

Gilman, who lives in Chicago with her husband, has just completed a commission for the Royal Court Theatre, called "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball," about an artist who has a nervous breakdown and who pretends she's former baseball player Darryl Strawberry to stay in the hospital longer.

"Like everything else I do," she says, "it's a dark comedy."

"Boy Gets Girl" is in previews at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. It opens officially Wednesday and runs through Nov. 16. 978-454-3926; www.merrimackrep.org.

Postponed indefinitely Many Boston theatergoers were eagerly awaiting Jon Robin Baitz's "The Paris Letter," and will have to wait a bit longer. The first of the Huntington Theatre's Calderwood Commissions was originally scheduled as part of the current season, but was postponed indefinitely to make room for "Butley," starring Nathan Lane. If you want more information on what you're missing, read the long interview with Baitz in the latest issue of Bomb, the arts and culture magazine, in which he talks about the play.

Fringe fest opens It may not be Edinburgh, but Boston can finally say it has a fringe festival. Boston Fringe, a collection of plays and performances by some of Boston's leading alternative companies, will present performances by Centastage, Company One, Hysterical Performance, Mill 6 Theatre Collaborative, New African Company, Tricord Productions, and Zeitgeist Stage Company along with featured poets, dancers, musicians and storytellers. The festival opens Thursday and runs through Nov. 22 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Opening sixth season Boston Theatre Works celebrates its sixth season with a $15,000 grant from the Boston Foundation and several major individual gifts. It's expanding its season from three to four plays, increasing development of new work, and adding a new managing director, Nancy Curran Willis. . . . Stoneham Theatre will present the world premiere of "The Girl in the Frame," a musical by Jeremy Desmon. The show opens Thursday and runs through Nov. 9. It is the first production in the theater's Emerging Stages series of new plays. . . . SpeakEasy Stage Company reports its chamber musical "A Man of No Importance" is breaking attendance records (now that the Red Sox season is over) and the company has a new corporate sponsor, American Express Financial Services.

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