What a pleasure to get a good long look at the spanking-new theater for Amphibian Stage Productions, the have-play-will-travel group with one foot in Texas and the other lightly in New York. This is the second Amphibian main stage production at the new house—but because the first, The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, the Ugliest Woman in the World, played in total darkness, the current run gives audiences a first glimpse of just how well this intimate space will serve. It's a sleek and elegant addition to local theater, and interestingly located in Fort Worth's work-in-progress "Near Southside" neighborhood close to downtown.
As it happens, Steven Dietz' play Fiction suits the new house perfectly. Its intimate size—no seats are more than three rows from the stage in this thrust configuration—is a great fit for this story about a pair of married writers facing the biggest shocks of their lives.
Fiction had a respectable New York run in 2004 with the Roundabout Theatre Company. Dietz, a prolific Colorado-born writer who teaches at the University of Texas but divides his time between Austin and Seattle, seems to wear his "regional playwright" label like a badge of honor. It's easy to see why this was the one of his 30-plus plays that attracted a major Manhattan theater company; if these characters aren't actual Upper West Siders, they're the best sort of out-of-towners, folks to bring home for brie and conversation: well-educated, in love with words, bubbling over with quotable quotes and lightly handled references to cultural icons from Dante, Plath and Hemingway to Lennon, Jagger and Joplin.
In unskilled hands, these are characters who might have audiences rolling their eyes by the second scene. But by digging out every bit of warmth and humor from a script that could read as a bit detached and brittle, New York-based director Mary Catherine Burke (making her Amphibian debut) and the actors of this nimble company manage to bring it off in style.
Michael (Jakie Cabe), a hugely successful writer of novels snatched up by the movies, is married to Linda (Lydia Mackay), author of one well-regarded book written years earlier in her career. Rocking along more (and less) happily in their personal and professional lives, their bantering equanimity is shattered by a diagnosis: Linda has a brain tumor and three weeks to live. In the grief and panic that follow, Linda forces a promise from Michael that after "I'm safely out of this world," he will finally read the diaries she's kept for many years. And, she adds, "I want to read your journals."
Oops. For as Linda soon discovers, Michael's diaries tell the tale of the long, passionate, world-traveling affair he's been having with Abby (Cara L. Reid), a woman he and Linda met many years ago at a rural writer's colony. To read Michael's account of it all, he is Dante and Abby is his Beatrice; the love of his life, his muse.
"I made it all up," says Michael—but can we believe him? Suddenly, we begin to notice two things: that the scenes we've watched playing out are memories, versions of events as told by Michael himself, who may (or may not) be a trustworthy narrator; and that Michael's memory is as changeable as the weather. "Achingly vibrant," he tells us he wrote in his diary after first meeting Linda in Paris. Later, he admits it's a phrase he used instead to describe meeting Abby years later. And yet it's always Linda we find at the heart of Michael's story. Who is the muse? What is true, and what is imagination?
Moving episodically between past and present in Michael's memory, Fiction becomes something of a whodunit, with a twisting, turning plot that continues to surprise as it reveals truths about both Michael and Linda's lives and work. It is a love story told by and for grownups, about secrets and truth, and about why most of us, at one time or another, turn the facts of our lives into fictions we can live with. "A marriage, however good, is not a tell-all enterprise," Michael says ruefully. "It is a pact with necessary strangers."
Cabe and Mackay, both making main stage debuts with Amphibian, ably navigate these tricky waters—bantering and badgering like characters in a movie co-written by Tom Stoppard and Woody Allen—without losing an essential humanity that draws the audience closer. Wrapping their arms around one another after Linda's diagnosis, the two actors reveal in one moment the long, loving connection that lies under the sparkle of this couple's words, words, words. And if Reid (also in her first main stage role with Amphibian) is anybody's muse, she's a blunt-spoken and astringent one, willing to puncture Michael and Linda's self-deceptions.
Fiction isn't a costume piece, but designer LaLonnie Lehman has some quietly telling touches, particularly in the contrast between Linda's early-days Parisian-scarf perkiness and the slouchy sweater she wears through career disappointments and illness. Set designer Bob Lavallee has room to push the most intimate action forward, nearly into the laps of the audience. An upper level at back is used cleverly to keep characters in play when they're not on stage, and provides a way for Michael to observe and oversee the scenes he is remembering. Lighting is used subtly by designer Frederick Uebele to move the action from memory to memory in Michael's fragmentary account, and sound designer David Lanza's opening music for Act II is amazingly on target—up-tempo but dark, with a relentless ticking-clock element that echoes our sense of time rushing forward too quickly for Linda and Michael.
Fiction is a well-told tale, worthy of the new theater space it celebrates.