Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts (SECCA)

Burning Coal Theatre
Through May 1

Did you come to make friends, or did you come to make art? Choose one. Because frequently, when you try to do both, you ultimately accomplish neither goal.

That’s part of the very pointed advice playwright Angus MacLachlan has for his audience in the world premiere of Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts at Burning Coal Theatre.

Rarely am I as divided in my assessment of a work as I am with this production. In addition to MacLachlan’s work as an actor and playwright (both of which regional audiences have seen at Manbites Dog Theater), his career as a screenwriter has quietly developed over the past 15 years, including an early independent short that was featured at the Sundance Film Festival; the 2005 indie hit Junebug, which yielded an Oscar nomination for Amy Adams; and Stone, the upcoming crime thriller with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton.

Clearly, this tale of an independent filmmaker’s intuitive (and, at times, seemingly quixotic) attempts to initiate a new project has the ring of authenticity to itif not autobiography, given the local references the Winston-Salem-based artist weaves into his workstarting with the play’s title, which is a real place.

But that undeniable strength probably qualifies the breadth of this script’s appeal. As an insider’s look at a few of the fundamental quandaries an artist has to facein theater or filmit’s obvious that SECCA (pronounced see-ka) should be seen by locals who are active in either genre. For civilian audiences, the need (and interest) may not be as great.

Under Kathryn LeTrent’s direction, actor Aaron Mills’ work as Ethan, an independent filmmaker more or less crash-landing back home between projects, suggests the artist as perpetual motion machine: slightly befuddled, always bemused. While setting up a self-produced screening at the museum in the title (and awaiting acceptance from Sundance), Ethan is ostensibly auditioning people for his next projectand trying to nail down the funding for it.

But it’s not clear to Ethan’s kind but candid sister, Lizor to uswhether he’s appraising Spencer, a female adjunct acting teacher just arrived from Pittsburgh, for a role on-screen or in his bed.

If Ethan’s intentions stay enigmatic, Spencer’s do not. Finding herself relegated to this comparable theatrical backwater, she basically gloms onto the artistic brother and sister, instantly transforming into each one’s best, and certainly most enthusiastic friend. The question of how many interpersonal boundaries are transgressedor deliberately permitted to be, and with what intentremains up in the air until the end.

One thing we get from SECCA is the fragility of the human relationships involved and the sometimes too permeable border between what seems possible and what is real. Flexibility, we’re reminded, is important in the performing arts. But when MacLachlan’s characters stretch too far across these particular borders, their art is clearly in danger of being compromised. The question the playwright poses to each of his charactersand to us as artistsis: Are we okay with that?

In the end, what exactly has the trio in SECCA made? Lovers? Friends? Art? Or big mistakes, corrected just beforeor afterthe last minute? The audience is left to decide.