Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias (background) and Holly Twyford in Heather McDonald’s “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” at Signature Theatre. (C. Stanley)

“Masterpieces” imagines a world savaged by a hundred-year war and simultaneous ecological catastrophe. Amid the tumult, three women — an art restorer, a nurse and their military captor — interact in a ruined art museum, where a damaged Rembrandt canvas may be salvageable, if a rampaging rhinoceros can be kept at bay. The broader circumstances in the tale are grim, but “as the humanity of each of the women comes through, that counterbalances the bleakness,” McDonald says.

McDonald has penned other plays with art-related themes. “Dream of a Common Language” riffs on the Impressionists. (The Theater of the First Amendment staging of “Dream” won the 1995 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Resident Play.) Photography is a motif in “An Almost Holy Picture,” whose 2002 Broadway iteration featured Kevin Bacon.

Its art-related twists notwithstanding, “Masterpieces” grew out of an interest in a social and moral question, rather than an aesthetic one. Participating in a 2013 TEDx conference at George Mason University, where she is a professor, McDonald heard that “a TED talk should have some kernel in it you think could save the world.” She remembers wondering what problem the world most needed saving from. Her answer: tribalism. The three “Masterpieces” characters (played by Holly Twyford, Felicia Curry and Yesenia Iglesias) reflect different backgrounds and display the impulse to treat each other as threateningly alien.

Early drafts of “Masterpieces” found their way to Signature, which had produced McDonald’s “Available Light” in 2000. The new work impressed artistic director Eric Schaeffer. “I loved how daring the play was,” he says. “I found it very fierce.”

The fact that McDonald was a local playwright, he says, was a plus. (Another drawing card: the rhinoceros.) The play is the second show in Signature’s Heidi Thomas Writers’ Initiative, a five-year program supporting world premieres written and directed by women. Australian film and theater director Nadia Tass (who shares an agent with McDonald) is directing “Masterpieces.”

The production arrives after a relatively low-profile period for McDonald, who has been focusing on her family (she is a single parent) and university work. When Schaeffer called to give her the news, she confesses, “I cried. I tried to be real professional, but I cried. I haven’t done a new play in five or six years, maybe.” For an artist, she says, “it is a lot easier to emerge than reemerge.”


Holly Twyford in “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” at Signature Theatre. (C. Stanley)

Once preparation for the production was underway, it was time to figure out how to represent the fictional Rembrandt painting, which the play’s art-restorer character (Twyford) identifies as “The Two Marys,” an evocation of a pre-dawn moment just before two of Jesus’ followers become aware of the Resurrection.

Signature’s graphic designer, Jessica Aimone, briefly worried that computerized photo-compositing would be a bad match for a Rembrandt canvas. “Pixels have a soft delicate feeling, and Rembrandt’s work has this thickness and built-up-ness,” Aimone notes. But then Signature’s associate properties master, Pamela Weiner, assured her that the props department could add necessary texture.

Aimone pored over Rembrandt’s opus, looking for interesting imagery that would dovetail with references in the script. She ultimately fused together digitized portions of paintings by Rembrandt and by Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, then labored to build up shapes and achieve a Rembrandt-style palette.

At one point, Aimone says, McDonald asked her to add a ray of light that would hint at the divine. The graphic designer obliged, adding another strand of brightness to the play’s tonal chiaroscuro.

If you go
Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771 or sigtheatre.org

Dates: Through April 7

Tickets: $40-$80, subject to change