Jillian Leff’s new play is the story of a writer—one who is fortunate to have a partner with a steady job and income to pay the bills while she focuses on her writing. From the beginning, Stephanie (a sparkling Madeline Bernhardt) seems peculiarly intent on keeping the nature of her work a secret from Mike (Justin Verstraete). She’ll only say it’s a novel about a guy named James and it’s titled “Memoirs.” Stephanie has written short stories before but this is her first full-length book. Mike wants to help, but she’s obsessive about keeping him away from the book, until it’s a “perfect, final copy.”
(Non)Fiction is a world premiere script, smoothly directed by Kathi Kaity for the Right Brain Project. The story’s overarching theme is one we see played out in communities of color, in visual arts and in plays such as Ike Holter’s Red Rex: Who has the right to tell my story?
The relationship between Steph and Mike is written and played sweetly by the two, who celebrate her publishing contract with Twinkies and wine. Their story is punctuated by Steph’s conversations with her overbearing agent Dan (played by Tim Lee). (The simple staging includes phone conversations between pairs of people on their smart phones, sometimes sitting next to each other. It’s a very today treatment and it works.)
Steph’s resistance to sharing her work with Mike seems overdone—you may find yourself thinking that any rational person would have become suspicious much earlier. When Mike finally does get to read the final page proofs for the book, he discovers that the story is a slightly disguised version of his own life and his childhood as part of an abusive extended family arrangement. His sister Emma (Christiana Barbatelli) was suspicious because of questions Steph asked her about their childhood. Mike can’t understand why Stephanie can’t see his viewpoint: “It’s not just a story. It’s my life!”
The writer’s moment of truth comes when she’s asked to choose between her first published book and her love for Mike. It’s a compelling story with fine performances from all four actors.
You can see (Non)Fiction at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, through September 14. Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $25 for the evening performances and $15 on Sundays. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.