By Deborah Blumenthal
Anna in the Afterlife (launching its world premiere run this week) has had a long life, as it were. Playwright Richard Engling began working on the play in 2010, and it appeared in Polarity’s Dionysos Cup Festival of New Plays in 2011. In the years since the festival, “it’s always been in this process of improvement,” says Engling. There have been table reads, staged readings, and discussions, and he has enlisted feedback throughout the process from actors, director Susan Padveen, who has been on board since 2011, his co-founder Ann Keen, his daughter Zoë (also a writer), and dramaturg Deborah Blumenthal.
The play has undergone a lot of change in its five years in development, not the least of which is its title: the older version was not called Anna in the Afterlife – it was called Absolution, and did not actually take place in the afterlife, a development that now, according to Engling, “really defines what the production looks like.” Padveen recalls, “I can’t even remember the first form this play took…. It’s been really interesting to see it change in terms of the container for the story: the story has always been the same, but how it was told and what the structure was and what the arc of it was have really changed a lot, and in a really good way, I think.”
Anna’s history, however, extends back farther than just the script’s development process. When Engling’s friend and fellow writer Fern Chertkow died in 1988, he wanted to craft a literary tribute to her. The result was his novel, Visions of Anna, which later motivated him to write the play, although the play is much more inspired by than adapted from the novel: “[several years after writing the book], an idea started coming to me to approach that material again, but for the stage… This was not an adaptation of the novel, this was a different way of approaching the same source material.” Padveen agrees: “I never felt that it was adapted from something else. I know that the story was the same, but I really felt that Richard attacked it as a stand-alone piece.” The play, along with Chertkow’s book She Plays in Darkness and Engling’s novel, is now part of The Afterlife Trilogy.
The development process has continued throughout rehearsal, albeit in different ways. Being in the rehearsal room has brought to light new things about the script: Padveen explains that “as it’s gotten up on its feet, a lot of the exposition that was in the text has been less necessary, so some of that has gone away, and the changes being made in the past few weeks have been smaller, says Engling: “We’ve made a lot of little changes, mostly line changes, a lot of little cutting. We dropped one scene and wrote a new one… mostly refinements and trimming and that sort of thing.” Engling has also taken on the unusual task of balancing being both actor and playwright (he plays Matthew), and although it is challenging and demanding, it also “really informs” the writing process: being in all of the scenes gives him an “intimate view,” and “being inside” it all has helped him continue to improve the script.
As performances draw closer and the Anna team gets ready to welcome its first audiences, an exciting mystery remains in the process; there are still things to be discovered, and surprises still to come, particularly as the design components come to life. Engling considers himself lucky to have a team of esteemed designers collaborating on the show: “When you write a play and you say, okay, this is in the afterlife, you’re really putting it out there for the designers to come up with something interesting. And I had no idea how it would be affected. I had some inklings of what I thought it might look like… but it’s really an exciting process to have people coming in doing lights and sounds and projections and composing music. It’s like we’ve unleashed this little army.”
Anna in the Afterlife runs April 22-May 24 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online, or by calling 773-404-7336. Those looking to enhance their theatre-going experience by reading the novels of THE AFTERLIFE TRILOGY can purchase the books at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, City Lit Books, The Book Cellar, or on Amazon.com.