Melissa James Gibson is often identified as an American playwright (at the bookstore, for instance, and until a few days ago on Wikipedia) and while it's true that she lives in New York and obtained U.S. citizenship a couple of years ago so she could vote there, she was born in Ottawa, spent most of her childhood and teen years in the Vancouver area and is the daughter of former B.C. politician Gordon Gibson.
"I have very clear memories as a child saying to my father: 'What religion are we?' And his answer was: 'Canadian,' " Gibson says.
Gibson, who now carries two passports, recounts this during an interview at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre, where her acclaimed play This will have its Canadian premiere on Thursday, marking the first time that one of her plays has been produced in the city she still considers her hometown (an earlier play of hers, [sic]/i>, has also been produced in Canada).
Her parents, siblings, other family members and childhood friends will be among those in the audience. "Many, many members of my family and extended family have never seen a play of mine," she says. "So that's a particular thrill."
Gibson, who turned 46 on Tuesday (she shares a birthday with Sir John A. Macdonald), moved from Ottawa to Vancouver at the start of Grade 4, and to North Vancouver two years later. At 17, right after high school, she left to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
Ultimately, though, she switched her attention to writing, rather than performing. "I was very attracted to theatre always, but there was this growing realization that I just felt this enormous sense of relief as soon as I left the stage and that didn't seem to be the way it should be," she says. "Plus, believe me, I'm not God's gift to acting."
Gibson's writing is a different story. Her plays, including [sic]/i>, Suitcase or, those that resemble flies from a distance and, most recently, This, have been lauded by critics. In December, 2009, influential New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called This "the best new play to open Off Broadway this fall." She has received numerous awards and honours, including a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
"For me, the best writing comes from grappling with something - often on a very unconscious level - grappling with something on the page," Gibson says. "I'm definitely attracted to writing that really sits on the edge of comic and deeply painful. That, to me, is where life exists most fully. So that's the edge I'm most attracted to exploring."
This examines urban existence in midlife, including parenthood, loneliness and adultery. In the play, Jane (Megan Follows) is a widowed mother whose well-meaning friends try to fix her up with an eligible bachelor.
"I thought I wanted to write a play about adultery," Gibson says, "but then really discovered that I was writing about mortality and grief and, yes, middle age, and what we all live with."
Gibson's own midlife involves a serious juggling act: The wife of a lighting designer and the mother of an 11-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy, she works full-time as a college counsellor at the Brooklyn school her children attend and does her writing late at night after the kids are in bed and very early in the morning before they're up. At the moment, she has several scripts on the go.
"It's insane," she says. "And I'm too long in the tooth for it."
This opens at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre on Thursday, and runs until Jan. 29 (vancouverplayhouse.com).