Sunday, February 13, 2022

Faith and Drama

Last night, I saw Ciara Ni Chuirc's new play Made By God at Irish Rep. The production features Briana Reeves Gibson as the Virgin Mary. Gibson previously worked on the national tour of Amazing Grace, a musical with a book by Arthur Giron, who passed away earlier this month.

Like Ni Chuirc's play, Arthur frequently delved into issues of faith with his writing. He is perhaps best known for his play Edith Stein, a drama about a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity, became a nun, and was ultimately murdered at Auschwitz. Faith is not an easy thing in Giron's work, but it is always worth wrestling with in the end.

I first met Arthur more years ago than I'd like to count, at a reading of his play Flight. He was the reason I applied to the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon, but he was just stepping away from it as I was accepted. Though I never studied with him formally, we stayed in touch, and he came to readings of my work when I invited him. He was always generous with his time and his feedback.

A few years ago, I bumped into Arthur at a reading directed by Kim Weild, who also worked on Amazing Grace. He was giddy because he had recently reconnected with a woman he described as his first love. They had both gone on to marry other people, but he couldn't wait to see her again and hear stories about how her life had gone. That was Arthur. He was always looking for the best in people and in life.

He grew up as Arturo Giron, but this was in the days when Latino playwrights weren't taken seriously, so he was advised to submit his work under the name "Arthur" instead. It worked, and his play Becoming Memories was a hit. Arturo became Arthur, and that was the name he then went by professionally. He didn't forget his Latin American heritage, though, which comes out clearly in his play The Coffee Trees.

Arthur had a special knack for introducing magical realism into plays about historical people. His play Emilie's Voltaire, for instance, tells the story of the Enlightenment philosopher's affair with the mathematician Emilie du Chatelet, using a stunning array of theatrical devices. It's probably my favorite work of his. Again, characters wrestle with ideas of faith, not in a simplistic way, but in a manner that reminds us what it means to be fully human.

I wish that Arthur could have seen Made By God, and that I could have heard his thoughts on the piece. The play deals with debates over abortion. In the present day, a Christian podcaster investigates the story of a pregnant teenager who gave birth and died in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary in the year that abortion was outlawed in Ireland. The set, designed by Lindsay Fuori, portrays the outdoor grotto that served as a shrine, and now looms over the lives of characters struggling with their own faith.

Though I can't know for sure, I think Arthur would have enjoyed the play, whether he agreed with Ni Chuirc's religious views and politics or not. To him, what was important was not that we arrived at a destination, but that we always remained on a journey. Faith, for Arthur, was not a prize to be won, but a life to be led.

There will be a memorial service for Arthur on Saturday at Trinity Church on the Upper West Side. If you want another way to honor his memory, though, you might want to check out Made By God.