For the ninety-or-so minutes you spend watching a piece of theatre, your seat in the audience is a kind of home. Depending upon the quality of the storytelling on stage, you either notice every little defect in your home’s construction – its back is too straight, its cushion leans obnoxiously to the right – or you forget you’re sitting there at all. After the meager or explosive applause has lulled, you either flee your home and bolt for the exit, or you linger in its confines, contemplative, full of feeling, and making promises to visit much more often.
I was a lingerer in my seat at This is Fiction, a play by Megan Hart, which ran as an InViolet Rep production at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre from June 12th through the 30th. I’d spent the last hour-and-a-half invested in a family’s story and had grown attached. The characters and the words they spoke resonated with me, and the words they withheld spoke even louder. The play’s plot is a simple one, but with richly complex characters that hide years of sadness and painful secrets behind resilient facades – and with masterful direction by Shelley Butler that facilitated the well-executed revelation of such sadness and secrets – a simple plot is all that’s necessary.
The story opens with Amy (Aubyn Philabaum), a young writer, escaping from the rain into a New York City café where she meets Ed (Bernardo Cubría), an English teacher in his late-20s. They strike up a chemistry-revealing conversation, which leads (we find out later in the play) to a three-day fest of sex and budding romance. The next scene in the play, though, is not a continuation of Ed and Amy but rather an introduction to Amy’s family home in New Jersey, a place she hasn’t frequented in many years and to which she shows up unannounced.
As much as Amy’s sudden prodigal-daughter appearance pleases her father David (Richard Masur), it upsets her sister Celia (Michelle David), who has been dedicatedly caring for their father alone since their mother died a few years before. But over Chinese take-out at the kitchen table, the father and daughters quickly fall into a familiar rhythm, and although there’s palpable tension in their conversation and interaction, there’s also a softness that comes from the kind of common understanding that only members of the same family share. The glimpses of softness we see at the outset – the two semi-estranged sisters laughing over stories about men as they share chocolate cake for breakfast, the father procuring a midnight libation from one daughter when he knows he’ll never get it from the other daughter – secure our empathy when the conflict arises.
Soon Amy reveals to her family the reason for her visit: she has finally written a novel, and it’s up for publication. David and Celia’s excitement for Amy morphs into a sense of betrayal when Amy divulges the content of her novel, a story that, while technically fiction, is based on the very real personal struggles she faced growing up with an alcoholic mother. For the rest of the play we witness David and Celia, to varying degrees, try to convince Amy not to publish a story so private – a story they both believe is not hers to write.
The question of whether or not an author has the right to publicize someone’s private life by making it into a work of fiction – essentially the question of who, if anyone, owns a story – is the play’s central topic. Hart covers from many angles this topic of privacy versus artistic license by offering opposing, albeit equally understandable, arguments from her characters. Even though they come from different places, we are able to relate in turn to Amy, David, and Celia – and to the outsider Ed, who charmingly chases Amy to New Jersey to recover his wallet that she comically stole from him in a fit of neurosis – because Hart writes pointedly and honestly, instilling each of her characters with a delicate humanity that clenches the human hearts of her audience.
Such humanity is born from an acute understanding of pain. In This is Fiction, each family member’s pain has a common origin: the dead mother’s past alcoholism. Because facing the alcoholism had seemed more terrifying than the alcoholism itself, the family grew around the problem, as families often do, rather than confronting it. They found ways to conceal and repress their pain, forming a fragile but workable system. So when Amy gives the news that she will publish their private story, making concealment and repression no longer possible, the system is thrown off balance and its components go spiraling. But it is in this chaotic spiraling – in the vulnerability of the family system – where we see the family members for the pitiable human beings they are, and we root for them.
The ailing David, in a brilliantly nuanced performance by the adroit Masur, is a loving father – and often a mediator – to his girls but has spent decades ignoring the severity of his wife’s disease. When he admonishes Amy for her words against her mother – “the way you said ‘alcoholic,’ it made her seem like less than she was” – we are quick to forgive him for his willful ignorance because we understand that he wanted to see the best in the woman he chose to love. Amy’s older sister Celia, in a remarkably powerful performance by an emotionally aware Michelle David (one of the best actors I’ve seen on stage in years), feels responsible for her mother’s death and is plagued by an overwhelming sense of guilt that she attempts to assuage with martyrdom. We relate to her guilt and therefore readily empathize with her substantial anger at Amy for ushering her pain into the public arena. But we also understand why Amy, a writer who by nature feels compelled to share her story, needed to give words to her own pain. Perhaps our consciences understand less why she now must publish those words, but the logic and survival instincts within us (especially in those of us who are writers ourselves) are quick to challenge our consciences and validate Amy’s choice.
This is Fiction is a poignant, well-constructed story relayed by actors who understand what it means to be human. I was so moved by the truth they gave to Hart’s finely crafted dialogue that after ninety minutes of it, I craved even more. I’d found a gratifying home in my chair that night at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, and I didn’t want to leave it.
Photos by Jason White
1. Richard Masur & Aubyn Philabaum
2. Aubyn Philabaum & Michelle David
3. Richard Masur & Michelle David
4. Bernardo Cubria & Aubyn Philabaum