Novel lovers undone
Sacramento, CA 95816
“Writers are always selling somebody out,” wrote Sacramento native Joan Didion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, back in 1968.
That quote—and the concept that writers are forever “borrowing” the words and experiences of others as material for their novels and plays—was surely on the mind of Steven Dietz as he wrote his 2002 play, Fiction, now on the boards at Capital Stage. One of the characters in this play quotes her writing teacher as saying, “Remember, baby: The lies begin when we lift the pen.”
The story involves a married couple. Both are novelists, and both keep confidential journals—two sure indications of trouble ahead.
Michael (Eric Wheeler) is a commercial success whose books become Hollywood films. Linda (Janis Stevens) has a literary and academic career; she’s respected but selling fewer books, and she’s painfully aware that her well-received debut novel, published some years back, is her only accomplishment.
They’re both as opinionated as hell and capable of being quite sarcastic. When we meet them, they verbally joust over who sang the quintessential rock vocal; soon after, they argue about how to build proper sentences. And whenever they engage, a river of pointed words flows out. It’s ample opportunity for Dietz to show what he can do in terms of crafting escalating, combative personal and intellectual assertions, often derailed by fiendishly well-phrased put-downs (something Stevens in particular excels at delivering).
Trouble arrives, in the form of a sudden, serious illness afflicting Linda. But it’s the past that nails them, when Linda insists on reading her husband’s journals while there’s still time.
The journals disclose an affair, which took place long ago at a writer’s colony. But there’s much more than a long-ago marital betrayal going on. A really strange triangular relationship comes into view, with multiple hidden agendas and deceptions, gradually disclosed by the playwright as he slides the focus of the play from past to present and back again.
This production features strong performances by Stevens, Wheeler and producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, all veterans with this company. Each skillfully reveals more than they let on at the outset, and each displays steely resolve and moments of vulnerability by turns. Listen carefully, because you will hear lines early on that will retroactively take on deeper meaning. And this pleasantly complicated story is handled with clarity and skill by director Peter Mohrmann, who uses just the right touch in scene after scene, holding us in suspense as the truth comes out bit by bit.
In a deliciously ironic twist, Capital Stage has added an extra Valentine’s Day performance on February 14 at 7 p.m.
It’s also noteworthy to observe the degree to which Capital Stage and the B Street Theatre are in competition for scripts and playwrights. Capital Stage is doing Fiction by Steven Dietz and will be doing Hunter Gatherers by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb in May. B Street is currently doing Nachtrieb’s Boom and will be staging Becky’s New Car by Dietz later this month.