Steven Dietz’s “Fiction” is a drama about the gaps between our memories and how we fill them in as a means of making our pasts feel more complete. Think back on some of the defining moments of your life and there are bound to be tiny details you no longer recall: As one of the characters says, “Of a man and his memory, memory is the better writer.” It’s also a show about our need to document our own lives, and the fear that we’ll be forgotten if we don’t leave behind a personal artifact after we die.
The play, which opened at Spokane Civic Theatre on Friday, centers on a married couple who, when faced with a terminal disease, retreat into the hazy memories locked away in their old journals. Linda (Diana Trotter) and Michael (Thomas Heppler) Waterman have been quarreling since the moment they met in a café in Paris. When we first see them, they’re already squabbling like an old married couple, debating which rock recording has the best vocals: She says it’s “Piece of My Heart” by Janis Joplin; he says John Lennon on the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” It’s love at first spat.
They’re both writers, headstrong, opinionated and often stubborn. Linda’s semi-autobiographical debut novel “At the Cape,” about an American woman’s sexual assault in South Africa, was a popular and critical hit. She never managed to recapture its success, and she’s now working as a college professor. Michael’s career took off in a way Linda’s never did: Like Stephen King or James Patterson, all of his novels are best-sellers and have been adapted into popular films.
When Linda is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and given three weeks to live, she announces that she wants to read all of Michael’s old journals. After all, he’s going to read hers once she’s gone, so why not allow her the same luxury? He acquiesces, producing a wooden chest filled with dozens of carefully cataloged notebooks. He tears a few pages from one of the books and leaves Linda to read them.
Dietz then flashes back several years to Michael’s stay at the same writer’s retreat where Linda finished “At the Cape.” He hasn’t found much inspiration (“I don’t like to write; I like to have written,” he explains), and he distracts himself by befriending Abby (Aubrey Shimek Davis), the younger woman who runs the place. They grow uncomfortably close – she seems intrigued by his almost combative intellectualism, and he’s fascinated by the fact that she responds to it – and as Linda reads on, she comes to realize that Abby is more than just an incidental figure in Michael’s life.
Did anything romantic really happen between Michael and Abby, or is Linda merely projecting her own fears onto the situation? And does it matter anyway, since Abby haunts Michael’s journals as if she were a part of his waking life? And then Abby really is there, showing up unannounced at the Waterman residence to say her goodbyes to Linda.
The most effective segments of “Fiction,” which has been intelligently directed by Susan Hardie, involve this trio of strong-willed yet vulnerable characters unpacking the moral implications of their individual relationships. Nothing is explicitly stated – they all seem to be tiptoeing around what they really want to say – but every suggestion has a cruel sting to it, and every line of dialogue comes armed with a hidden insinuation. Trotter, Heppler and Shimek Davis deliver strong, potent performances, all the more effective because they’re never totally direct. Sure, the emotions they display are honest, but their true motivations aren’t always clear.
“Fiction” doesn’t traffic in the kind of twists and turns that might be present in one of Michael’s disposable best-sellers, but that doesn’t mean it’s predictable. The second half of Dietz’s script reveals a lot of uncomfortable truths about its characters (though some of Dietz’s dialogue is perhaps too obvious, as if he doesn’t trust that we’ll understand what he’s going for), and our allegiances shift between characters from moment to moment. It also never becomes melodramatic or hysterical, despite grappling with themes of death and infidelity. This is a show that’s both modest in scope and in tone, and it turns out to be an expertly modulated piece of fiction.
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