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Kevin M. Grubb as Elliot and Richard Engling as Matthew
Kevin M. Grubb as Elliot and Richard Engling as Matthew

"superlative direction of Susan Padveen...capitalizes and builds on the intensity and tension of Engling's affecting script"

FOUR STARS
"complex, rich, and psychologically sophisticated"

"Richard Engling's ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE is a play based on his friendship and collaboration with Fern Chertkow: a friend, writer, and colleague who took her own life in 1988. Because so much of the takes play in the afterlife, I would hesitate to call it autobiographical, but among the many new plays I have seen produced, it is deeply and refreshingly personal and obviously based, at least loosely, around the life, and more importantly death, of Engling's friend: Fern Chertkow..."

Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna, Sheila Willis as Anna and Sarah Eddy as Little Anna
Ellyn Nugent as Afterlife Anna, Sheila Willis as Anna and Sarah Eddy as Little Anna

“After contracting cancer, writer Matthew Harken (Richard Engling) is in a coma which has left his soul in some sort of purgatorial limbo—it's not hell or paradise–where he has been reunited with his friend Anna Toevsky who committed suicide and who is split into three persons: a child (Sarah Eddy), a young woman (Shelia Willis) as he remembers her, and a middle-aged “afterlife Annna” (Ellyn Nugent). His dear, gay, friend Elliot (Kevin M. Grubb) who thought (very seriously) about suicide and who concedes that he smoked himself to death, and Matthew's graduate school mentor, writer Carol Berge (Jean Marie Koon), are also there. They reminisce about and remember the past (Elliot implies this all they can do, at least at the moment), particularly the lives of Anna and Matthew: the circumstances leading up to Anna's suicide and the choices Matthew has made and what they have meant to his own life and what situation he will have left his family in if he dies. Anna, who desperately wants him to stay, urges him not abandon her now that they are finally together, but Elliot reminds him that his daughter Rebecca (Shannon Nicole Hill) who Matthew once dreamt “would be reincarnation of Anna” is standing over his bed, futilely trying to call him back from a coma, and that his decision to stay or go will affect the future either in his natural life or the beyond."

Jean Marie Koon as Carol Berge, Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew
Jean Marie Koon as Carol Berge, Sheila Willis as Anna and Richard Engling as Matthew

The play is marked by the superlative direction of Susan Padveen...In particular, Padveen's direction and blocking capitalizes and builds on the intensity and tension of Engling's affecting script whose plot is complex, rich, and psychologically sophisticated... Padveen seems to know both exactly where to place her actors on stage and how block their movement in ways which emphasize what is happening interpersonally: bonding; alienation; resentment; acusation; anger, and interior crisis. There are some very haunting moments happen behind a hazy curtain that is used extremely effectively."

Kevin M. Grubb as Elliot, Shannon Nicole Hill as Rebecca and Larry Garner as Dad
Kevin M. Grubb as Elliot, Shannon Nicole Hill as Rebecca and Larry Garner as Dad

“As a playwright, Engling has divided the show into two acts: the first moves slowly. We discover the basic outline of Matthew's life: how he met Anna in college, their brief stint living in Paris and becoming novelists together, Matthew's courtship and marriage to a visual artist called Patty (Shawna Tucker), and the birth of his daughter Rebecca (Shannon Nicole Hill). We also meet Anna's first husband Yousef (played by James Bould who gives a brief but incredibly intense and passionate performance as a Muslim who gave up his family to marry the Anna, and who after being warmly welcomed by her Jewish mother feels betrayed by the secrets Anna keeps from him which deeply affect his life (In Bould's hands one couldn't help but be sympathetic)..."

James Bould as Yousef and Sheila Willis as Anna
James Bould as Yousef and Sheila Willis as Anna

“In the second Act, we learn more about the cause of Anna's death. The pain of a lifetime must be displaced, endured, projected, silenced, and disassociated remains necessary to protect her even in death. Not only does she still have to disassociate to protect herself, but Matthew can still send the persons of Anna's trinity spiraling into agonizing trauma when asking a revealing question. All three Anna's give highly credible performances: Ellyn Nugent is wise, sardonic, and constantly actively observant as the afterlife Anna; Sheila Willis is able to convey a light-hearted flightiness than one slowly recognizes is a pure veneer, and Sarah Eddy: the hyper-vulnerability of an abused child..."

Shawna Tucker as Patty and Richard Engling as Matthew
Richard Engling as Matthew and Shawna Tucker as Patty

“Shawna Tucker balances the show by giving what is by far the strongest performance in the play as Matthew's wife Patti: she is a competent, visual artist, who wants a normal, happy life, but has fallen in love with Matthew and all his baggage. From the beginning, there are problems: he is eager to pathologize her, he lives a moderate bohemian lifestyle with which she is uncomfortable, and sometimes poorer life and moral choices from Matthew than she expected...Nonetheless, Tucker is by turns, sexy, intelligent, cheerful, artistic, damaged, hurt, and her performance is constantly authentic whether she is displaying humor, warmth, sensuality or pathos."

“Jean Marie Koon, who is very charming as a “New York Jewess with this accent,” and Kevin Grubb are able to provide suitable comic relief as Matthew's friends...The Set Design (Ann Davis) is fantastical, but flexible enough to allow for scenes from biological life.”
--Lawrence Riordan, Around the Town Chicago
Four Stars, Highly Recommended

JSheila Willis as Anna
Sheila Willis as Anna

Fiction Review:
"Visions of Anna" by Richard Engling and "She Plays in Darkness" by Fern Chertkow
RECOMMENDED

"Each artistic endeavor, to one degree or another, symbolizes a quest for immortality. The tragic irony, of course, is that most art does not survive. For every Shakespeare play taught in schools, produced on stage, and adapted into feature films, countless other plays dissolve into the ether of history, unacted, unread, untouched. Two new novels approach questions of mortality, art, identity and self-actualization in distinct ways. “Visions of Anna,” Richard Engling’s semiautobiographical novel, is based on his friendship with writer Fern Chertkow, who ended her life by suicide in 1988. Engling balances the novel’s elegiac tone with robust characters whose lived experiences belie its somber premise. Matthew Harken, the novel’s main character, is a successful screenwriter battling terminal prostate cancer. Upon learning of the suicide of his friend Anna Toyevsky, a fiction writer with a troubled past she could not reconcile, Matthew sets out to determine what caused Anna to take her own life. In the process, he comes to a spiritual awakening of his own, a revelation that prompts him to reassess his time with Anna and his own personal life and artistic pursuits."

"The novel’s most transcendent moments occur in Matthew’s flashbacks to the time he spent in Paris with Anna. Both young emerging writers subsisting on meager meals in less than modest living situations, Matthew and Anna immerse themselves in the Parisian literary scene. In recalling these memories, Matthew squires readers through a vision of The City of Light so charmed and romantic even he questions whether it truly was as magical as he believed it to be. Engling displays an enviable gift for dialogue and a painter’s eye for clear detail."

"In “She Plays in Darkness,” Fern Chertkow crafts a novel rife with mood and sentiment. Through Chertkow’s protagonist, a painter/legal secretary named Cynthia, readers encounter a roster of characters that float in and out of this young woman’s world, some barely registering with her, others impacting her life irrevocably. A year-long separation from her identical twin Rosemary (the Rose) forces Cynthia to construct an identity all her own. Like Anna, the muse of Engling’s novel, Cynthia is dedicated to painting yet must reckon with smarmy lawyers and assorted numbskulls in order to make her way. The gift of this novel lies in Chertkow’s ability to withhold obvious declarations from readers and to allow us to make our own discoveries, as Cynthia makes hers."

"“Visions of Anna” and “She Plays in Darkness” comprise the first two parts of The Afterlife Trilogy. Part three, the play “Anna in the Afterlife,” also written by Richard Engling, opens at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre on April 22. Although these novels are not companion pieces, as part of a trilogy one cannot avoid comparisons. While “Visions of Anna” contains a strong authorial voice, motivated characters, and a plot that propels the book, “She Plays in Darkness” meanders and struggles to cohere, owing to its main character’s diffidence. But this is exactly the point this pair of books is trying to make: Anna and Cynthia are as unknowable to themselves and to us as they are to the characters that inhabit their respective novels. Engling and Chertkow take different approaches to pose the same questions to readers: Can we ever really know someone? At what cost do artists sacrifice themselves for their craft? What, if anything, exists beyond death?"
--Jarrett Neal, NewCity

How to Purchase Books

Books are available by mail order from us and are on sale now at:

The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago 60614

City Lit Books in Logan Square, 2523 N Kedzie Blvd, Chicago 60647

The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave, Chicago 60625

Amazon.com at Visions of Anna and She Plays in Darkness

 

Bryan Breau as Colin and Sheila Willis as Anna
Bryan Breau as Colin and Sheila Willis as Anna

Lionel Gentle as Dipoko
Lionel Gentle as Dipoko

Richard Engling as Matthew, Jazmin Corona as Shakti and Shawna Tucker as Patty
Richard Engling as Matthew, Jazmin Corona as Shakti and Shawna Tucker as Patty

 

 

All production photography by Jackie Jasperson.

Read more about Anna in the Afterlife.


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Polarity Ensemble Theatre