A playwright’s odyssey: from fear to fulfillment

Savin Hill’s Catherine O’Neill will stage her second play in Boston next month.Savin Hill’s Catherine O’Neill will stage her second play in Boston next month.

Beginning on March 6, Dorchester playwright Catherine O’Neill will invite audiences to the Boston Center for the Arts see her most personal work yet. In “The Fence,” O’Neill recounts how her father built a chain-link fence for her brother as an act of love – only for the son to ask to tear it down because of its ugliness and negative reactions from neighbors. The ensuing drama unearths what she describes as “a world full of hate and secrets” that highlights “the heart of ageism, socioeconomic growth, and acceptance among first-generation Bostonians.”

By using her family as her inspiration, O’Neill gave herself a chance to reflect on the journey they took from Ireland to Boston. She is the youngest of seven children and the only one born in the United States.

“My parents and my 6 brothers emigrated to this country,” she says. “I never considered how brave that was, for a long, long time.

“The play is about that, too – the shoulders that we all stand on as Americans.”

In an interview with the Reporter, O’Neill declines to reveal much more of the plot, but she explains that she heavily dramatizes everything following the catalyzing incident of the fence. She says with a laugh that her brother Timothy, the son in the episode, is fine with the character based on him because he understands it’s “really not him.”

It was not always a given that O’Neill would become a playwright. Her resume recounts a path that is equal parts impressive and fluid. She has worked in politics (for Mayor Menino and in the campaigns of US Sen. Elizabeth Warren and state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry); in education (Milton High School and Emerson College); and in real estate (first for Corcoran Jennison and now as a consultant). Those various endeavors, however, have largely been a means to an end: the fulfillment of her love for writing.

“Because I got into writing so late, I have a mortgage,” she says. “I have financial obligations that perhaps a 23-year-old writer wouldn’t have.” Over time, she says, she has found a way to balance practical needs with her passion. She works 40 hours a week – which she calls a “part time endeavor” – and uses her weekends and nights to be creative.

The beginning of her journey to full-fledged writer was bumpy. While she always loved to write, she initially did it privately because she didn’t think she was good enough. The gender norms of that time did not help, either: “When I grew up,” she says, “women were not encouraged to be artists. They were encouraged to be school teachers, nurses, or to work for the phone company.”

O’Neill gained her first fan after she wrote a short story for a class she was taking at Suffolk University, where she had returned as an adult to complete an unfinished bachelor’s degree program. Her English professor had pulled her aside to give her feedback and she thought, “Finally somebody is going to tell me that I am not a great writer, so I can stop this thought in my brain.” She says she secretly wanted to be “let off the hook” from her obsession. Instead, the professor told her it was the best short story she had ever read.

While not fully convinced, O’Neill began to pursue writing more seriously. She sent an article about “being a woman in the ‘90s” to Ms. Magazine at the height of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill confrontation after his nomination to the US Supreme Court. And during a stint of unemployment, she sent a piece to the Boston Globe entitled “Jobless and Humiliated” and was thrilled to see it published in the op-ed section alongside Globe columnist David Nyhan and Washington Post writer David Broder. Later, while working in the Menino administration, she began a talk show, The Dorchester Connection. And soon after, she began writing a column for the Dorchester Reporter.

Now, with a master of fine arts in creative writing degree, the experience of a year-long graduate course in screenwriting, and five professionally produced plays under her belt, O’Neill seems to have made it. She says she is driven by characters who are close to her heart.

“All of my work is inhabited by strong women over forty,” she says in highlighting the scarcity of such roles today. She also portrays what she calls “regular, normal, neighborhood people” to emphasize that “theatre is for everybody,” not just the wealthy. To that end, she is already at work on another project entitled “My Son’s Mother,” which she hopes to show some day at the Strand Theatre. She wrote it with two local actresses in mind. “They’re from our neighborhoods,” she says, by which she means one is from Jamaica Plain and one is from Dorchester.

O’Neill’s democratized approach to art brought up another topic for discussion in the interview: the changing face of Boston as rents steadily rise. When asked about the changes, she takes note of the challenges and the promises at hand: While “young people have been priced out”– two of her nieces included – she thinks that the mayor and the governor understand “that in order to be the place we should be, we have to keep our young people here.” To that end, she says, “they’re making affordable housing, they’re creating a cultural mecca. So I think that it’s all going in the right direction. And I have great hope.”

That hope, however, is mixed with some sharp criticism of the current situation for artists. “I know what they pay the actors and the directors – it’s disgusting,” she says. “That’s probably why I denied myself for so long. Hopefully the next generation won’t have to choose.”

Having stopped denying herself her passion, O’Neill is now where she needs to be. “Of all of the spaces I’ve ever been in in my life, this is the most comfortable,” she says, “there is no greater fulfillment I’ve ever had in my life than when I write.”

“The Fence” will run at the Boston Center for the Arts from March 6 – 21. Tickets can be purchased online at bostontheatrescene.com/season/The-Fence/.