"I knew I had to direct it."
Elizabeth Williamson has been with Hartford Stage for more than five years, originally as a dramaturg and director of new play development and since 2015 as the theater's associate artistic director.
It's only recently that she's asserted herself there as a stage director — with "Cloud Nine" last season and now the premiere of Sarah Gancher's "Seder," described on the theater's website as "a visceral family drama that weaves together a mother's mysterious past working for the Hungarian KGB with a daughter's outrage over the past atrocities."
Williamson has known Gancher since they were in school together at Bennington College in Vermont, but this is the first time the women have worked together.
"I did a workshop of the play last fall," Williamson says. "Sarah had been thinking of this as a smaller production, more immersive. I wanted her to come see Hartford Stage, so I staged half of it in the workshop so she could see how it worked on a thrust stage." A New Play Award from the Edgerton Foundation was used to pay for extra rehearsal time.
"Seder" is part of a cycle of seven plays inspired by time Gancher spent in a neighborhood in Budapest, Hungary.
The director and playwright outline their hopes and goals for the premiere production of "Seder" during separate phone interviews earlier in October.
"This play definitely hops around the whole 20th century in Hungary," Gancher says. "It starts with an image of this woman, Erzsike, in the House of Terror, a museum of war atrocities in Budapest, seeing a picture of herself on the Wall of Murderers. The question of the play is 'Does she deserve to be up there?' To answer that question, we need to see what she was like as a young woman."
Erzsike's story is based on reality — the museum revelation actually happened to one of Gancher's Hungarian neighbors, who'd been a typist for the KGB.
"Seder," which spans several decades, requires a single actress to play Erzsike at two distinct phases of her life. For the tricky role, Williamson has enlisted Mia Dillon, who played both a small boy and an elderly woman in "Cloud 9."
The play has a dark dramatic side, but also "a lot of family drama," Williamson says. The main setting is Erzsike's Budapest apartment in 2002.
"Her estranged daughter [Judit, played by Birgit Huppuch] is coming to her mother's home for the first time in a decade." The family is gathering so that Erzsike's other daughter Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), who has an American Jewish boyfriend, can learn how to hold a Passover seder.
Some of the play's humor, Williamson says, comes from the fact that "there's only one character in the play who admits to knowing how a seder is done."
"It's a drama," the director continues, "but Sarah is naturally very funny." Gancher herself declares that "I don't do anything without humor. It's very important to me."
The playwright describes herself as "Jewish, but pretty secular. I never related to that aspect of myself before moving to Hungary."
Williamson says "I was brought up by an atheist and an agnostic." The "huge amount of research" she did in preparation for directing the play involved attending a seder and reading a lot of Hungarian history.
While "Seder" has been in rehearsals at Hartford Stage, Gancher had another one of her plays premiere this month — the rock and roll family drama "I'll Get Your Back Again" at the Roundhouse Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland.
"My plays are often an outsider's perspective on what people around me have been shaped by," Gancher says. "I'm extremely interested in a sense of place. The characters can be based on real people sometimes. I've borrowed many stories from friends, or from things that have happened to me. I'm using them to work out the answers to some pretty big questions.
"But it's only satisfying to me if these characters become real enough to surprise me and show me some new directions they can take. Otherwise it's an empty allegory."
Despite the challenge of readying two premieres simultaneously in the same month, Gancher has been very present at Hartford Stage.
"I'm a monster rewriter," she says. "I do my best work in the rehearsal room." She has nothing but praise for Hartford Stage Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak.
"Hartford Stage has been so great! It's truly wonderful to work with Darko on this because he comes from this world." (Tresnjak grew up in Yugoslavia in the 1970s.) "He has a deeply really personal response to the work. So, she says, does costume designer Ilona Somogyi, who is Hungarian-American.
"Seder," Williamson sums up, "is about a family, in the context of history, across generations. It's asking questions we should be asking today: What responsibility do we bear for crimes committed in our name?"
SEDER by Sarah Gancher, directed by Elizabeth Williamson, runs through Nov. 12 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added matinees Oct. 28, Nov. 1 and 11 at 2 p.m.; and added Sunday evening performances Oct. 22 and Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org