Admired novelist Linda Waterman (Amy Warner) tells a class of writing students that her most respected teacher once said, "The lies begin when we lift the pen." The distance between lies and fiction isn't all that far, it appears, and that's the energy source for Steven Dietz's Fiction, getting its regional premiere presently at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. In this play, it's gradually revealed that a pair of fiction writers might have allowed their craft to seep into their lives. It's a fascinating concept.
Linda has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given only a few weeks to live. She tells her husband Michael (Dennis Parlato), a self-proclaimed "hack novelist" who has nonetheless achieved great success, that he can read her journals when she's gone, but in return, she wants to read his now. For reasons ultimately revealed, he's uncomfortable with her request, but acquiesces.
As Linda reads, scenes from his text come to life onstage. We shift between the present moment and the text — in fact, Linda and Michael often fill in the blanks in one another's sentences and complete each other's thoughts. The easy, jocular relationship between Linda and Michael, established immediately in a scene of verbal sparring in a French café where they first met, feels real and natural.
So it's all the more distressing when that balance — which has survived and deepened through years of marriage — suddenly becomes unbalanced.
It seems there's been another woman, Abby Drake (Shannon Rae Lutz). We have some suspicions, of course, and Dietz's script provides many clues suggesting further complexity. For instance, scenes recreating the events in the diary filter through Michael's narrative voice — he literally narrates them, cleverly underscoring that we're watching his version of past events. Only in the second act, when Abby visits the couple, do we begin to perceive that what we've perceived might not be real — perhaps it's another fiction. Or is it? Dietz and director D. Lynn Meyers turn the audience around several blind corners and undermine those who think they've sorted out where the story is heading. It's a great feat of narrative and plot, even if there are twists created largely to spin heads. Nevertheless, Dietz's characters are smart, articulate, passionate and entertaining, people you might not entirely like but who make for lively theater.
Parlato and Warner (who have worked together previously under Meyers' direction at ETC, in The Guys) have an easy relationship that feels very real and makes sense. He's full of himself; she's smart, too. They love to push each other's buttons, but it's evident they are in love. There is a subtle believability to their performances. Lutz's Abby is less convincing, especially given the necessary distance between her imagined character in the first act (we actually meet her through both Michael and Linda's filters), and the "real" woman we encounter in Act II. Much of the play's surprise should be driven by this divide, but Lutz pretty much plays her in the same arch and aloof manner throughout. The role should be more than a catalyst, but Lutz hasn't quite given Abby in Act II the necessary texture.
In another vein, Fiction's set, designed and lit by Brian c. Mehring, provides a stage full of autumnal texture, dominated by orange and golden leaves, strewn about a doughnut shaped playing area (surrounding a writing desk) and suspended from wires as if frozen in the fall air. It's a breathtaking evocation of the play's themes of death, beauty and imminent loss.
Michael and Amy have a running argument about the best-sung pop song of all time: He argues for John Lennon and the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," while she maintains that, even though she never really liked Janis Joplin, "Piece of My Heart" is the hands-down winner. Michael is drawn to events that "shake it up, baby," but Linda prevails. "Break another little bit of my heart" are the words that resonate. Grade: B+
FICTION, presented by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 18.