Theater World Friends Bring Ailing Playwright Closer To Home
About a dozen friends and colleagues of the adventurous Cuban-born playwright and director María Irene Fornés gathered Wednesday morning near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to await her arrival at Amsterdam House, the nursing home to which she was transferred from another facility in upstate New York. Just before 1 p.m. the small throng waved and applauded as Ms. Fornés, 82 and gaunt but seeming to enjoy the attention, was wheeled into the home.
The group then waited in a sitting room, exchanging stories and memories about the writer, while the staff determined whether she was up to having visitors.
“This is a glorious day,” said Lorraine Llamas, a playwright who studied with Ms. Fornés, and who was one of the first to arrive. “She’ll be close to her peers and students. She’ll get the support she needs here.”
Ms. Fornés has lately been the subject of a petition campaign on change.org, started by her literary agent, Morgan Jenness, and Michelle Memran, who has spent the last decade writing and directing a documentary about her, called “The Rest I Make Up.”
The petition, which more than 2,700 people have signed, argued that Ms. Fornés, who has had Alzheimer’s disease for more than a decade and has lived at nursing homes upstate since 2005, should be moved to New York so that her admirers in the theater community could visit her.
The petition argued that her nephew and guardian, David Lapinel, was withholding permission for the move unreasonably. Mr. Lapinel did not return telephone calls; Dr. Stephen Lapinel, his brother, said in an interview the charge was not accurate, contending that the family had been carefully balancing the benefits and dangers of moving the playwright. He added that the family appreciated the petition because it led many of Ms. Fornés’s friends in the theater world to visit her.
“We recognize that our aunt is a public figure,” said Dr. Lapinel, a physician who lives in Virginia, “and that a large part of her persona has to do with her public life. And we’re proud of her accomplishments. But at the same time, she’s family, and there has to be a balance of what’s public and what’s a more appropriate and private process for someone at the end of her life.”
Ms. Fornés was born in Havana in 1930, and moved to the United States when she was 14, becoming an American citizen in 1951. She began her artistic life as a painter, but after seeing a French production of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in Paris, her interest shifted to the theater, and particularly toward avant-garde drama, sometimes with feminist, gay, Hispanic and political themes. In 1959, she began a seven-year relationship with Susan Sontag, a tempestuous romance described in Sontag’s published journals. She never married and had no children.
Starting with “The Widow,” in 1961, she wrote 42 plays, and won nine Obie awards. Her “Manual for a Desperate Crossing” (1996) was recast as the libretto of Robert Ashley’s opera “Balseros” (1997). Her last completed work was “Letters from Cuba” (2000), which was presented as part of the Signature Theater Company’sseason-long festival of her work, an honor bestowed on Edward Albee and Horton Foote among others.
Among those welcoming Ms. Fornes was Claire Lebowitz, who is at work on a play about Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is currently on trial for allegedly leaking classified intelligence documents.
“I didn’t know her, except as a fan,” said Ms. Lebowitz. “What I find inspiring in her work is the combination of its social and political aspects and her unique voice. She was a real innovator, and confrontational at a time when it was okay to be more political than it seems to be now.”
Ching Valdez-Aran, an actress, director and aspiring playwright, met Ms. Fornés in the early 1980’s, and attended a writing workshop that she gave in the late 1990’s.
“I never had the chance to work with her as an actress,” Ms. Valdez-Aran said, “but at the workshop, I began work on two plays, and I found her very inspiring.”
After about an hour, Ms. Jenness, who had accompanied Ms. Fornés to her temporary room, told the waiting group that she was about to be moved to another with a view of the Cathedral.
“She’s smiling and singing, and happy to be here,” she said.
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