It’s a good thing Linda Griffiths makes her living by writing and acting in plays rather than marketing them.
For this is what happens the end of a long lunchtime conversation at a College Street café, as she heads off to rehearsals for her new play, which opens at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille on Tuesday: “Oh!” she says, sounding as if she has just pried open an oyster and discovered a pearl. “I have one sound bite to say! ‘Heaven Above is about two sane people having a conversation.’ ”
Griffiths is correct. Heaven Above Heaven Below is an engaging two-hander, unfolding in real time, about a pair of former lovers who meet 20 years after an unplanned pregnancy broke up their relationship. Still, her quip is not the sort to set the box office phone ringing.
She might have rather gone with the fact that Heaven Above is the sequel to the multinominated 1991 play The Darling Family, which has been produced dozens of times around the world and was adapted into an acclaimed 1994 indie film.
It is also, less propitiously, known as the play which Passe Muraille pulled from its lineup last season after Griffiths discovered she had breast cancer. These days, she says, she is feeling much better, though she is still undergoing treatment. “I’m living with cancer, which is what lots of people do,” she shrugs. “There’s a whole other sector that don’t have triumphant cures or remissions, that are regular people in the world. And so, I’m a regular person in the world.”
So, for that matter, are He and She, the two unnamed protagonists of Heaven Above. Griffiths has written about plenty of special people before: She made her name with Maggie and Pierre, a one-woman riff on the Trudeaus and their marriage, first staged in 1980. In the late 1990s there was The Duchess a.k.a. Wallis Simpson, a satirical take on the woman for whom Edward VIII abdicated his throne.
More recently, Griffiths has been performing The Last Dog of War, a solo show about her father, a Second World War RAF bomber.
But if that was her most directly personal play, Heaven Above cut so close to the bone that she almost abandoned it.
At the conclusion of The Darling Family – named after the three siblings in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the boy who famously refuses to grow up – the character known as She has just had an abortion. “Are we grown up now?” she asks plaintively.
Twenty years later, She and He bump into each other at the wedding of a mutual friend, then repair to a hotel room to take stock of that long-ago decision and its fallout. He is married, with a four-year-old son; She has a boyfriend. None of which will deter them from drinking, smoking and snorting their way through various substances while lurching their way to some sort of resolution.
Griffiths completed a draft of the play a couple of years ago, but after seeing a workshop, she decided not to continue with it. “For the first time in my life, I was not going to go into territory that was risky,” she says: “Whether I wanted to explore having kids, not having kids.” (In her late 50s, she does not have kids.) “For once, I was going to be a person that goes: I’m not doing that.”
But she discovered there’s one thing riskier than exploring risk: not exploring it. “The trouble was, I couldn’t work on anything else,” she says, moving her way through a Greek omelette. “It was like a stone here,” – she lightly taps the top of her belly – “because I’ve never stopped the birth of things.”
“I think I was trying to make so-called ‘healthy decisions.’ ” She laughs. “But for me, not doing something creative is never going to be a healthy decision, you know?”
Perhaps it wasn’t really her decision to make – to finish the play or not – but rather a result of fate. At one point in Heaven Above, He and She talk about a moment that occurred 20 years earlier, when they conducted a reading of the I Ching to determine whether she should keep the baby. The reading had said it would make no difference what they did.
“Whatever we choose there’s heaven in it. That’s good,” He says in the new play. “It takes away the fear that we are in control, that we actually have a say in it at all.”
Griffiths mulls this now, as it relates to her own life. “If you believe the world is a web of fates and encounters in which there is an overall plan, or at least an overall perspective, you’re more likely to believe ‘heaven above heaven below,’” she says.
“I don’t totally follow that philosophy.” Still, “It speaks against the kind of ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda” thinking that goes on past a certain age.”
“It’s one of the things that goes through me as I think about my life. I do think: if I would have done that, it would have been okay, and I did this, and it’s okay. So – what’s the problem?”