It would be nice to see Portland Playhouse take on a script that has no deep philosophical meaning whatsoever. The young company just kicked off their second season with Steven Dietz's Fiction—and while it may be true that I just don't particularly like the man's writing, it's equally true that with Fiction, Portland Playhouse continues the trend established in their first season of earnestly producing Theater That Means Something. There's obviously nothing wrong with a show having serious themes—the problems start when you realize that the themes being explored onstage would be recognizably banal in any other medium.
Here's Fiction's plot: Linda (Gretchen Corbett), a writer, is diagnosed with a brain tumor and given three weeks to live. Her husband Michael (David Seitz) is also a writer—as well as writing novels, they are both prolific diarists. So, when the imminent end of Linda's life is announced, she asks David if she can read his diaries before she dies—he will, after all, have access to hers once she's gone. Unsurprisingly enough, Linda finds evidence of an affair; the rub, though, is that it's not clear how much of what's in the diaries is real, and how much was wishful thinking on David's part.
The script seems designed to goad reviewers and publicists into writing lines like "probes the line between the lies we live and the truths we keep from ourselves." In other words, it's far too overblown for such a young, lively company—if Oprah picked a novel with this storyline, it'd be seen as the downfall of her book club. Theater's subject matter is not somehow elevated simply due to its presentation on a stage—just because tickets are expensive doesn't mean there's an exemption clause for bad writing.
As in past productions, the direction here is over-earnest—both Corbett and Seitz play too big for the space, opting for displays of sentiment rather than the restraint and precision called for by the intimate theater. What is no doubt intended to scan as passionate and vibrant feels instead, at times, like overkill, particularly given Dietz's propensity for hammy plot twists and flashback sequences.
In one short season, Portland Playhouse established itself as a destination, a comfortable theater space with a genuine community feel. Now that the space is dialed in, it's time to start focusing on the work.