Imagine that you’ve detailed all your dreams, fears and innermost thoughts onto the pages of a journal for years. And then imagine that the person you’re closest to was made privy to that journal’s contents. Would they be surprised by what they read? Would it put a strain on your relationship?
Steven Dietz’s intimate, three-character drama “Fiction,” which opens at the Spokane Civic Theatre this weekend, begins with this simple conceit and then watches as the sudden exhumation of once buried secrets pulls the rug out from underneath a decadeslong marriage.
Michael (Thomas Heppler) and Linda (Diana Trotter) Waterman, a pair of erudite, slightly cantankerous novelists, are the married couple at the center of the play. Linda once wrote an emotionally wrenching best-seller but has yet to match its success; Michael specializes in brainless potboilers that have made them most of their money. There’s something of a friendly professional rivalry between the two, but their marriage is mostly happy.
“I believe it’s really important that this relationship be a strong and vital one going into the play,” said director Susan Hardie. “And I think that raises the stakes when the suspicion starts to be revealed, when we start to see things unravel.”
When Linda falls ill, she requests that she and Michael read one another’s diaries, and he complies. They soon discover that the same young woman, a writer named Abby (Aubrey Shimek-Davis), figures into both of their lives, and Dietz’s script begins to weave together the conflicts of the present with the hazy recollections of the past.
“It’s sort of like opening Pandora’s box,” Hardie said. “It’s very thought provoking. … Should two people, even under extreme circumstances, reveal their most guarded secrets to each other?”
Dietz is a prolific writer whose plays are frequently performed (the Modern Theater Spokane recently staged his “Last of the Boys,” which Trotter directed), and his work is almost always emotionally complex and doesn’t usually offer easy answers. The characters in “Fiction” aren’t exactly warm and cuddly; in fact, Michael and Linda are sometimes downright prickly.
“On first reading, it’s easy to see how the writing could be a bit alienating,” Hardie said. “If you met this couple at a cocktail party, they’re kind of fascinating but they really do suck all the energy out of the room. … But we’ve worked really hard to humanize these people and make them people you want to care about.”
The script is a deceptively difficult one: It’s both a battle of wits between two keen intellects and a harrowing study of marital discomfort. But Hardie said that having a small cast of talented actors has benefited her in really understanding what Dietz was going for.
“We’ve had endless discussions about the material,” Hardie said. “These are three very thoughtful actors. It’s just been wonderful. I walked into this project thinking I had a pretty good handle on this material, but the more we dive in, the complexity of the piece has really challenged the way we tackle each of these scenes.”
Despite its title, “Fiction” is really a story about truth, about the accuracy of memory and honesty in relationships. Even if you’re holding on to secrets, did events from your past really happen as you remember them?
“When we write something down, Dietz believes that, even if it’s fact, it shifts into fiction,” Hardie said. “He says there are three pasts – what we remember, what we record and the events that actually happened, and rarely are those the same thing.”