Over the past decade, Moonbox Productions has emerged as a potent player on the Boston theater scene. And it has done this without a lot of fanfare, picking up awards and building audiences even as it tried out various performance spaces in the Greater Boston area — from the Brattle Theater (where it made its debut with “Godspell” in 2011) to a Harvard Square storefront for two rousing runs of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” before returning regularly to the Boston Center for the Arts. The company’s 12th season opens this week with a pair of premieres by local playwrights, Kevin Cirone’s “The Good Deli” and Mary ElizaBeth Peters’s “Jonathan,” running in repertory through Oct. 2.
“From the start, we wanted to support local artists and present productions that welcome everyone, community partners, audiences, and artists of all abilities,” says Sharman Altshuler, producing artistic director and founder of Moonbox.
Even as their public output seemed modest — just three productions each season — behind the scenes, Altshuler and Allison Olivia Choat, associate artistic director and a founding partner, were building an ambitious company committed to Turning the Tide, an initiative encouraging the participation of people with disabilities, and mounting their first New Works Festival last June. The festival not only showcased an impressive and diverse array of local playwrights but provided opportunities for dramaturgical support and workshops before the full productions bowed.
Both “Jonathan” and “The Good Deli” were part of Moonbox’s earliest conversations around these two initiatives.
“Moonbox put out a call for scripts as part of their Turning the Tide program about four or five years ago,” says Peters, who wrote “Jonathan.” “But then, you know, COVID . . .”
The forced hiatus, however, gave Peters the opportunity to work with a Moonbox dramaturg, Betsy Goldman, which she says helped deepen her characters.
“The play is a coming-of-age story of a young man who happens to be on the autism spectrum,” says Peters. “Jonathan is a 19-year-old who is working at his first job in a large retail store, wants to move out of his parents’ house, and has his first crush. They are universal experiences. In this case, he has to balance life and health.”
The play takes place during the store’s busy holiday season, when all aspects of Jonathan’s life come crashing together.
Peters says she was hoping to cast someone on the neurodiverse spectrum in the lead role and was thrilled by Moonbox’s openness to that idea and by the choice of Sam Fidler, who, she says, is able to explore something he has experienced.
Peters, an inclusion-based drama teacher in the Boston Public Schools, has worked on lots of devised scripts with her students, and on short plays for Boston Actors Theatre, but this is her first full-length play (“Jonathan,” directed by Brad Reinking, runs 70 minutes).
“I’m fascinated by stories that balance micro and macro,” she says. “‘Jonathan’ follows one individual’s story, but it also reflects on bigger American issues of how we judge people based on class and education.”
Cirone’s “The Good Deli” is a family comedy, loosely based on his own family. The story tracks a road trip from Maine to Boston, prompted by a dying father who has demanded that his daughter (Aimee Doherty) find the deli he remembers from her childhood. Cirone, who has performed with Moonbox in “Shipwrecked!/Twelfth Night” and “The 39 Steps,” plays a smaller role in the production directed by Choat.
After a reading in Altshuler’s living room, “The Good Deli” was scheduled to run in late 2020, and then again in February 2022. But, you know, COVID.
“I was disappointed about the delays, but it gave me time to hone the script,” Cirone says. “I also think, for Moonbox, the pandemic hiatus gave them time to plan and be thoughtful about what it takes to present new work.”
Altshuler says she was thrilled by the productions that appeared as part of Moonbox’s first New Works Festival.
“When we first started talking about it, we had no bandwidth for creating something from scratch,” Altshuler says. “COVID made us realize how important it is to support local artists while staying focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion, and it gave us the time to do it.”
The first New Works Festival featured seven plays and musicals that explored a wide range of topics, including racial violence, growing up alienated and queer, gun violence in schools, the struggles of an all-girls school, and more.
“I thought this first year, two plays might emerge as really strong,” says Altshuler. “But I was so proud of all of them, because each one showcased a unique voice with a strong story to tell. The plays were contemporary and relevant.”
Moonbox has hired Bridget O’Leary, former associate artistic director at New Repertory Theatre, as the director of new play development. She is already planning next summer’s New Works Festival.
“So much of what we’ve been building over the years is coming together,” Altshuler says. “I think our next goal is to create a ‘pay-what-you-can’ option to eliminate any barriers to attending and expand our connections to the community.”
THE GOOD DELI and JONATHAN
Presented by Moonbox Productions. At the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 2. $35, www.bostontheatrescene.com