By Deborah Blumenthal, Dramaturg
When writing the book that would later inspire him to pen Anna in the Afterlife, Richard Engling always knew that the text he was crafting to honor his friend Fern Chertkow would be a novel, and not a memoir. He and Fern both loved fiction, and the kind of truth that can come through in it, and so in tribute to her, he chose to tap into that shared love – and in true literary style, he did it both in form and content.
It’s the content part that’s become most alive in Anna in the Afterlife, though. The play is, of course, fiction – a nod back to Engling’s original choice – but unlike the novel, the play unfolds on its feet in front of us. And the love of literature is everywhere; it’s in the characters and in Engling’s text.
We see Anna and Matthew as graduate students in creative writing, sharing and nurturing an understanding of one another born out of and built on a love of fiction. They reference their influences, their loves, writers of whom the other reminds them: Anaïs Nin, Lawrence Durrell, Jack Kerouac. In their younger years, they relish in living their lives in the footsteps of the greats: Hemingway, Orwell, etc.
But the literary presence in the play extends beyond a set of characters who love books, words, and their craft. It is in the very fabric of the play.
Matthew often contemplates the idea of destiny, and is asked to answer difficult questions about unfinished work, or what he was meant to do – what he could do with the remainder of his life. He also thinks, often, of time he could spend with his daughter.
In a script development meeting several months ago, Richard Engling and I were discussing some of the thematic threads that are woven throughout the play, and the various directions in which he might take them. There was a lot bubbling around about legacy, I remember saying – questions about what an artist leaves behind, and how much that matters, if it ever does. “It’s like the Sunday in the Park With George thing,” I said.
For the unindoctrinated, Sondheim’s beautiful “Children and Art” suggests that those are the two things we are truly capable of leaving behind. Art, like a child – or a child, like art – is a legacy. We love our children, and we put what we love in our art. Matthew’s most pivotal moment, perhaps, in his journey, comes when he thinks about what he wants to leave behind.Anna and Matthew were collaborators, too, and there’s a line in the play about the possibility of a book honoring Anna. Should Matthew choose to do this, he will help Anna achieve a legacy she might have wanted, while also creating his own. And, as art so adeptly imitates life, he will do just what Engling has set out to do in writing his works: to find some truth in storytelling — to explore life vis-à-vis fiction.
Don’t miss the production that Around the Town Chicago calls “deeply and refreshingly personal” and “complex, rich, and psychologically sophisticated“. Anna in the Afterlife runs through 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 Theater Center, City Lit Books, The Book Cellar, or on Amazon.com.