Playwright Jessica Lind Peterson also plays the comatose Allison in Flowers for the Room.
Photo by Amy Woodford
“I’ve actually tallied up how many dead parents I have in all of my comedies,” Jessica Lind Peterson says. “There’s more than I want to admit.”
Playwright, actor, and co-founder of Osseo’s Yellow Tree Theatre, Peterson is best known for her holiday farce Miracle on Christmas Lake. At 10-plus years running, the play has earned its status as a Minnesotan classic, based on the real-life snafu of Peterson and her husband—actor and director Jason Peterson, Yellow Tree’s other co-founder—slapping together an original show after losing the rights to A Christmas Carol. It’s the death of a parent that has brought the lead back to Minnesota from New York City, to take over a small community theater.
“It’s like Disney movies”—Peterson is a little sheepish, but clear-eyed, examining her own writing tics. “[The characters] are immediately struck by loss. And it gives them something to fight against, or to fight for.”
In Miracle on Christmas Lake, that loss provides the setup for what unspools as feel-good situational humor. Offbeat characters engage in near-vaudevillian gags involving hotdish, a bad soap opera, and a fugitive lizard. Over the course of eight plays, Peterson has shown a talent for teasing out the absurdities of life’s challenges. Whether it’s romance strained (in String, about choosing between an English professor and a pizza boy) or dreams deferred (in Lena Long Legs, about a model facing multiple sclerosis), her work often falls under quirky comedy, alongside her three other droll Christmas shows, developed after the overwhelming success of the first.
But now, with her first musical, Peterson is doing things a little differently. Flowers for the Room, showing at Yellow Tree Theatre February 1 through March 3, centers around a traumatic brain injury that leaves its heroine, Allison (played by Peterson), in a coma. She only just got married. Husband Jake (Zachary Stofer) has to decide: What do his vows mean now?
Might sound heavy for a musical. And it kind of is; don’t think of showtunes and glitz. Peterson points out that this isn’t so unusual. Dear Evan Hansen, winner of 2017’s Best Musical Tony Award, concerns a boy with social anxiety who makes a classmate’s suicide into a self-centered fiction. Before that, the bipolar mother in 2009’s Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal turned over questions about suicide and drug abuse. The pop sound of modern Broadway runs through the former; rock underscores the latter.
“There’s a suspension of disbelief with music where you allow yourself to believe and feel things that you normally wouldn’t if someone is talking,” Peterson explains.
“In theater in general, there’s obviously a huge element of having to suspend your disbelief, because you’re telling a story in two hours, and when you’re also tackling a medical subject like a traumatic brain injury and a coma and all these things…” Peterson sighs. “It can get really tricky.”
Patrons of Yellow Tree offered Peterson their expertise, unsolicited, when they found out what she was writing. “Because they were nurses and doctors and things like that, which—I have definitely done my research, but there’s just no way that you can accurately depict 16 weeks in a neuro-ICU,” she says. “You just can’t do it in two hours.”
With music, though, it feels less insurmountable. “It just allows you to play. It allows for magic. It just allows you to be in a different world.”
The different world of Flowers for the Room is Allison’s mind. In her coma, the fantastical premise of a musical clicks. Months go by. She can hear everything around her. Her fears and desires blossom into songs that Peterson describes as folk-Americana. In other words, deeply Duluth—written (both music and lyrics) by local singer-songwriter Blake Thomas.
Characters so unlikely that, on the contrary, they feel instantly recognizable bear the marks of Peterson’s imagination: a nurse played by Theater Latté Da veteran Kendall Anne Thompson who binges Jell-O pudding to stay up through the late shift; a pastor and semi-professional wrestler who rips his clothes off in a bit of magical realism while trying to get Allison to wake up on her birthday; a social worker obsessed with American Ninja Warrior who smokes pot seemingly always.
Allison’s own idiosyncrasies—as a home-body landscape artist—ostensibly mismatch her to her financial analyst husband. But the peculiarities make their own sense. They ground Peterson’s work, too, whether she’s writing ridiculous dialogue, or dramatic.
“I am just obsessed with watching people and reading about their weird things on the internet,” she laughs. “But everyone goes through very universal things in life—they fall in love, or someone gets sick, or a parent dies. So, I think it’s about taking the normal things, and the things that we all have in common, and whittling away until we find the quirkiness.”
Flowers for the Room came out of an article about a freshly wed Los Angeles couple who landed in Allison and Jake’s predicament.
For Peterson, who is working on her MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University, it was a chance to explore. “I think what I’m really fascinated by as a writer is [that] we have these ideas for what we want our lives to look like. And what if, all of a sudden, that changed, and you just couldn’t do it?”
She drew from her own marriage for Flowers for the Room (“I’ve been doing that research for 16 years”), as well as from her long-running partnership with Blake Thomas. After a lot of talk, they’re making a musical together, now that Peterson feels like she has the right story.
Hers joins a spate of new original musicals in the Twin Cities, like last year’s Lord Gordon Gordon at History Theatre, Who Am I This Time? at Glanton Theater, and the upcoming Jefferson Township Sparkling Junior Talent Pageant at Park Square Theatre.
“In a way, I’ve been pigeonholing myself as a comedy writer a little bit in the last 10 years,” she says. “I feel a little self-conscious, because there are a lot of people in town writing new musicals. And I hope this one is good, you know?”
In another way, her voice has holed out its own niche in the Twin Cities theater scene, characteristically abuzz with extreme situations. Initially, that just meant the anxiety of whipping up a Christmas show. “I don’t think there’s anyone else like me, because I’m so weird in my little Osseo theater,” she says, laughing. “I feel like, now, after this project, I can sort of do anything as a writer.”
Flowers for the Room
February 1-March 3
Yellow Tree Theatre
320 Fifth Ave. SE, Osseo