Even if Tracy Sunderland is the only actor on stage in "Graphic Depictions," it is not a one-woman show, she insists.
"It's a semantical point," she says. "I'm really uncomfortable with the term one-woman show because my immediate inference is that they've written it, and it's somewhat autobiographical."
This isn't that, she says with an anxious laugh - something she does often while talking about herself and her upcoming role in "Graphic Depictions," a world-premiere Boise Contemporary Theater production of an Eric Coble play that previews April 3-5 and opens April 6.
"It's not a showboaty, 'Wow, watch me play 15 characters' kind of play," she says. "I'm just in a play that happens to have only one character."
She and director Dwayne Blackaller call it a "one-hander," a nod to the theatrical vernacular "two-hander," meaning a play with two characters.
This play marks Sunderland's return to Boise Contemporary Theater after a four-year hiatus, during which she traveled to England and studied film.
Sunderland moved to Boise to work with Idaho Theater for Youth in the 1990s. She became a member of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival company for several seasons and helped found BCT, where she became an artistic associate for much of the 2000s. In 2008, she took a break.
An actor who pushes herself into new territories personally and professionally, she felt the need to live outside her comfort zone for a while.
"I've always done things like try something, scrap it and try something else, so it didn't seem that weird to me to take a detour for a few years," she says.
During her time at the London Film Academy, she played all the major roles in a film crew - from director to camera operator, which is not her strong suit, she says - and worked on six short films. She also wrote. One screenplay titled "Nicoleta" - a short Sunderland co-wrote with director Sonia Liza Kenterman - is currently getting attention on the film festival circuit, earning screenings at Houston, Palm Springs, Boston and others.
Now, she's come full circle again and is back on stage in Boise with a kind of play that she does extremely well, Blackaller says: a solo character study that takes you on an emotional ride.
"These shows always come down to the ability of the one actor to hold the story aloft," Blackaller says. "You can have great chops and acting technique and all that but if you can't sustain the story, it crashes and burns. She has an intuitive grasp of how it works. That's why a show like this is a great return for her."
"Graphic Depictions" is the second in a series of three plays by Coble calls "The Alexandra Plays."
"Velocity of Autumn" is the third piece - although it was written first. "A Girl's Guide to Coffee" is the first in the series. The second piece, "Depictions," Coble wrote last.
The three plays work more like a triptych than a trilogy because they hold together through theme rather than through narrative.
"They're all looking at the same type of woman - deeply artistic and fiercely independent," he says. "They're all struggling with the basic question of when to put down roots and when to run like hell."
Each of the plays is set in the current year but tell these women's stories from the different perspective of their age. The first Alexandra is in her 20s. This one is in her 40s - she's got a mortgage and family and is still trying to figure out what she wants.
In "Velocity," she is 80. She's put down roots but is being told to rip them up.
Coble, who lives in Cleveland, developed "Velocity of Autumn" at the Seven Devils Playwrights' Conference in McCall in 2009. BCT gave it its world premiere the following year. Now it is headed to Broadway with Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons and two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella as its cast.
For those who saw that "two-hander" in 2010, "Graphic Depictions is a very different kind of play. Just Sunderland, a chair and a few scaffolds on stage create the world of the play as the audience tries to unravel this Alexandra's riddle.
"Part of the fun of this play is that it's a mystery," Coble says. "You only get one trip through the fun house when you have no clue where you're going. Once you know the outcome, seeing the play is a different experience."
Sunderland's character jumps around in time and topic, and gives away glimpses of her story, but never reveals all.
"The first time Tracy read it, I cried," Blackaller admits. "It made me weep but I wasn't at all sad by the end of the play. I left feeling triumphant, like doing a goal-post dance. We immediately called Eric and asked if we could do the world premiere. It's great that he would take this kind of risk on us again."
Coble spent a few days with the cast and keeps in touch through email for dialogue tweaks and changes.
"I'm entirely comfortable leaving my play in their hands," Coble says. "BCT is a creative, nurturing environment in which to work on a play."
© 2013 Idaho Statesman