“Faithful Cheaters” is on stage through May 21 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets range from $25 to $71. For tickets, call (401) 351-4242 or go to trinityrep.com.
Writers take inspiration from the world around them, and when Deborah Salem Smith glanced around, she was increasingly mesmerized by the perennially joyous spirit of her children.
Her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son are “fierce about being happy all the time.”
“They are relentless about chasing joy and I envy that,” says Smith, the playwright-in-residence at Trinity Repertory Company and author of “Faithful Cheaters,” which opens at the theater Thursday, April 20.
While she notes that she has “always written about very topical things” and cultural issues — her last show at Trinity was “Love Alone,” which focused on a medical malpractice case — she was charmed with the idea of focusing on the pursuit of happiness in adults, and whether it was fleeting, elusive or even worth having.
Her goal in writing “Faithful Cheaters,” a comic exploration of modern marriage, was to create a fun plot in which the audience could connect with the characters and find something to take away from it.
“It’s incredibly joyous and fun for adults, and I drop in some points of meaning,” Smith says. “There has to be something meaningful.”
The story focuses on the institution of marriage and the concept of being happy.
“This is the one relative you pick in life. Your parents are the ones you’re given, your siblings are the ones you’re given, but you choose your spouse. And, if you are not happy in the moment, what does it mean to chase that happiness?” she muses.
In the play, a couple, Poppy and Theo, who schedule a weekend getaway to a lake house where they are joined by Poppy’s meddling mothers, contemplates using a new nasal spray guaranteed to ensure fidelity.
“Faithful Cheaters” examines all forms of fidelity, Smith says. As she delved into the causes and ramifications of her characters’ actions, she drew on her own experiences as well as research. The idea of a fidelity spray, for example, stems from studies Smith found into the effect of the so-called “cuddle hormone” oxytocin on bonding.
“I thought it was so interesting as an idea — instead of just being faithful, people need help!” she said with a laugh. “Would we want this? Do we need this to be happy?”
Even the setting of a lake house is drawn from her family’s annual summer jaunts to her spouse’s family’s lakefront home — a place she says “grounds you and makes you breathe more deeply.”
“We need that in life. It’s a place where people in love can escape, even though they often get in the way of that!”
Seeing her ideas come to life at the hands of director Melia Bensussen — and with the talents of actors Rebecca Gibel, Mauro Hantman, Karen MacDonald, Anne Scurria, Stephen Thorne and Charlie Thurston — perpetuates for Smith the debate over the pursuit of happiness that preoccupied her as she wrote “Faithful Cheaters.”
“Maybe happiness is elusive and a little out of reach, but the question is, are we paying enough attention to the people and things that could get that for us?” she wonders.
As she wrote, Smith specifically had Scurria in mind for the role of one of Poppy’s mothers.
Serving as playwright-in-residence — and having worked on three previous shows with Scurria — Smith says she understands the actors’ strengths and skills, which inform her writing.
“There are certain lines I wrote specifically for Annie,” she says, adding that, “And Mauro has a great comic side that I was able to write to.”
— Susan McDonald is a regular contributor to The Providence Journal. She can be reached at Sewsoo1@verizon.net.