ELMHURST – Friendship is a secret language shared by two individuals who can communicate only through honesty and reverence. It envelopes a type of love that stands the test of time and never finds fault in the desire for personal growth.
For Richard Engling, that theme is the foundation of his play "Anna in the Afterlife," a warranted tribute to his friendship with Fern Chertkow based on the fictional characters of his first novel, "Visions of Anna."
“I think in many ways, it’s a play about love and a play about life. It’s a play about the inevitable losses and how we deal with that," said Engling, an Elmhurst native. “It’s a play about the legacies we leave and about the way we approach living life.”
He was inspired to write the novel soon after Chertkow took her own life in October 1988. The play followed several years later, as a separate testament.
In the preface of his novel, Engling openly discusses the evolution of their 12-year friendship, which began in a fiction-writing seminar in graduate school.
“That was a really formative time in our life because we were trying to become novelists," Engling said, noting their bond shaped their identities.
Engling described Chertkow as a deep listener who asked many questions. He wrote, "She wanted to know your deepest secrets, and you felt grateful to be so known, and to know her in return."
He also revealed knowing about Chertkow’s “bouts with depression” and that she sought help to deal with them.
"You always wonder what happened – if something could have been done,” he said, still mystified by the end result.
With "Anna in the Afterlife," Engling embodies the male lead role Matthew, an unlikely move for most playwrights.
“It’s odd that Richard wrote it and is also playing himself in the play. It’s a really unique opportunity to know the truth,” said Sheila Willis, who plays Engling’s counterpart Anna, Matthew’s love interest.
Engling said playing the dual role of playwright and actor is an exploration.
“You’d really discover things that you haven’t thought through in writing," he said. "As you approach it as an actor, it’s a different exercise. It’s a different part of the brain that has to come into play.”
Willis added typically, playwrights have a strong grip around their scripts and disallow for any changes the directors and the casts may have, but Engling left his trust in their hands.
Like Chertkow, Willis asked Engling many questions to prepare for her role. She began to nitpick characteristics Chertkow possessed, like learning what type of music she listened to and knowing what she valued most in life.
Director Susan Padveen said Willis’s “worldly weariness” and “innocence” brought life to Anna’s role. A role, Engling added, Wilis performed with a lot of heart.
As for acting opposite of Engling, Willis said, “He’s there in the moment, in the scene with you because things happen.”
One of the aspects Willis particularly enjoys about her role is the age-defining moments she shares with Engling’s character, Matthew.
In less than a page, Willis said, she jumps from age 25 to 36. The 11-year span peeks into the beginning of their friendship in graduate school to later in their lives when they occasionally see each other, a measurement of the maturity in their relationship.
Engling relies on Padveen to set the stage of the afterlife, an unknown world that knows no rules or holds no boundaries. Padveen is committed to creating this “tech-heavy” performance, a world that is dependent on light, sound, projections and music all for the sake of this message: What are the things that make life worthwhile?
With friends, Engling said, the time is worth the investment. For friendship means often searching for new ways to reconnect but always looking back.
If you go
What: "Anna in the Afterlife"
When: April 22 through May 24
Where: Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
More info: Visit petheatre.com/anna.html