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A new play ponders what we owe our families
When Gina Gionfriddo begins a new play, she doesn't set out with a singular message she wants to tell; her approach is more intuitive. "When I sit down to write a play and tell a story, different threads come out," she says. "I generally come up with characters and then let them tell the stories they're going to tell. And the different threads emerge from that."
True to form, her new play Can You Forgive Her?, running at the Vineyard Theatre, emerged from seemingly unrelated ideas.
One thread began spinning when Gionfriddo had her first child in 2011, a girl. "I was having a lot of thoughts about all of the old, not-very-good writing that I am storing and whether it should be thrown out," she says. "And if I keep it, would that mean I'll be dumping it on her one day?"
That notion became a plot point in Can You Forgive Her?: a man named Graham (Darren Pettie) is trying to clean out his mother's house following her death. The only problem is, he can't bring himself to get rid of her many boxes of unpublished writing: novels, poetry, memoirs. "She just wanted to be published," Graham explains, so discarding the boxes would mean destroying his late mother's dreams.
The next element of the play is embodied by a character named Miranda (Amber Tamblyn), who is heavily in debt after earning two degrees in English lit. She resorts to prostitution to earn money, and she ends up hiding from a john at Graham's house. "I had done some research and read about cases where students amassed, like Miranda, hundreds of thousands of dollar in school debt," Gionfriddo says. "I was interested in that phenomenon, the idea that at 17 or 18, you can make decisions that can really cripple the rest of your life."
So what do these two stories have in common? Both Graham and Miranda are driven by the foiled dreams of their parents. Graham through his mother's leftover writing, and Miranda through her mother's desire to see her child get a college education and move to New York City. "I think what binds the threads together is the idea of grappling with a sad inheritance from your parents," Gionfriddo says. "The way in which we inherit the sorrows and unresolved issues in our parents' lives, and how do we go forward from that?"
The play itself doesn't provide any solutions. Instead, with its cast of five, it raises complex questions about money, class, and legacy. To Gionfriddo, who is a two-time Pulitzer finalist, that's the point of playwriting. "If you have the answer, it's almost not worth writing the play," she says. "I want the play to explore that which is hard to explain and hard to understand. I think it's a meditation rather than an answer."
When Can You Forgive Her? was having its world premiere in Boston last year, Gionfriddo's own mother passed away. Suddenly, art became life, and the playwright and her brother were faced with tackling their mother's home. "We're postponing dealing with emptying and selling the house," she admits. "It's funny, I guess I must have known that this was in my future and it was going to be tough."
So in working on the play, has Gionfriddo unearthed any insights on her own predicament? Or more specifically, has she figured out what to do with her own boxes of unpublished writings? "I don't know what I'm going to do with them," she says, chuckling. "There's a part of the play where Miranda says, 'When a doctor tells you to get your affairs in order, it means get rid of your journals.' So I think I'm putting off the decision until then."
Photos by Carol Rosegg. Top photo: Darren Pettie and Amber Tamblyn.
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