Not hard to tell fact from fiction in Amphibian Stage’s production of “Fiction”, Steven Dietz’s play about diaries and relationship. Fact: when two of north Texas’ most skilled, creative actors, Lydia Mackay and Jakie Cabe, negotiate the challenges presented by the convoluted twists and turns of Dietz’s 2002 script with nuanced artistry and smooth style, they makes it a first-rate theatrical event. Add Cara L. Reid’s delicate, reserved detachment to the intimate mix, this “Fiction” manifests as a formidable trio of reality-builders and dream-weavers.
As a script, “Fiction” presents real performance challenge. The play, Dietz’s 25th, fills the stage with more “talking about” than “doing”. When “doing” appears, it feels superimposed as a rebalancing act. Conflict arises when the leads, married fiction writers played by Mackay and Cabe, exchange diaries, one of which reveals a long-term extra-marital affair. The script feels deliberately calculated in its format, with unexpected flashbacks interspersed with snippets of unresolved set-ups, all zinging along at sit-com speed. I can imagine Dietz standing before a wall-sized flowchart, juggling scenes on sticky notes in a line until he’s satisfied with a carefully structured chaotic arrangement. A propos for 2002, when audiences wanted respite from 9-11’s lasting grim reality? It’s as though Dietz responded to some dare: write a show with Stoppard-like complex characters and a dark secret, but make it light and snappy like you’re writing for prime-time TV comedy with a laugh track. Without the right caliber of actors and a strong director of vision, this play could lose an audience longing for continuity and depth.
The truth about “Fiction”? Amphibian’s production rises to the challenge. Bob Lavallee’s multi-level thrust set drives the reality v. fiction quandary with visual acuity. Hauntingly ephemeral as it leads the eye upstage through contemporary-styled portals with cool lighting, in contrast it reveals increasingly detailed elements with office and home “realities” downstage bathed in warm glow. When actors move upstage, the more “imaginary” they become. What is real, and what exists as dream? In an interview with Simon Saltzman for Theatrescene.net in 2003, Dietz states his premise. ” I believe that the minute we put anything down on paper (i.e. diary), even if it’s fact it becomes fiction.” Reflecting that sentiment, “Fiction” challenges its actors. Faced with creating a believable, tangible reality that may in fact, be all fictional construct – they must play both levels without seeming to switch back and forth. New York based Director Mary Catherine Burke chose a capable cast that follows the conceit and keeps its audience engaged and interested.
Lydia Mackay portrays Linda, the play’s most sympathetic character, as a no-nonsense, somewhat jaded writer/professor with a terminal illness. Not written to jerk tears, this character provides the play’s realistic “baseline”. Mackay defines her ‘reality’ as a tough-minded, stoic adult, badly shaken by her husband’s adultery but not begging for anyone’s sympathy. She spends little time upstage in fiction-land. Balancing her inner strength with a nervous flamboyance (making the couple at once recognizably hot/cold – yin/yang), Jakie Cabe conveys his character Michael’s personal insecurity and spontaneous thoughtlessness along with genuine devotion to his stronger-natured, dying wife in a way that never alienates the audience. He’s quick-witted, too sweet to be seen as cocky or reviled as an adulterer. On a secondary level, it’s his real v. fictional worlds that fire the conflict. He frequently gravitates upstage to fiction-land, where marital discord catalyst Abby emerges. Cara L.Reid’s icy performance as “the other woman” injects a hint of mystery into the plot, as she matches Michael’s verbal jousting tit for tat, while expressing sincere concern for Linda and her plight. I am no plot spoiler, but know that all here resolves not as it first seems. Mae West said,” Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.” That’s no fiction, as Dietz’s play reveals.
Amphibian Stage Productions, in its welcoming, accessible new theater home just off I-30 in Fort Worth, offers its audiences some of the most carefully crafted, artistically sophisticated productions in the region. Forgive playwright Steven Dietz for his reliance on contrivance in “Fiction”. Find delight in the engaging, entertaining production director Burke and her creative team have crafted. That’s the honest truth.
“Fiction” runs at Amphibian through March 17, 2013. http://www.amphibianproductions.org
Photos by Melissa Villarreal