New Plays, New Chapters: A Cambridge Playwright Tells a Story of Rediscovery

"Rosanna's play tells a beautiful, seldom told middle-age love story, unfolding in our own backyard, with the freshness and smart sensibility of a young independent filmmaker."— Peter DuBois

A new play can spark from anything — an idea, an evocative image, a single line of text. Cambridge writer Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro's new play Before I Leave You started with a tumble. "A few years ago, I was preparing paella for guests, lifted up the heavy skillet, and, propelled by unsenn forces, tumbled backwards and landed on the kitchen floor," she says. "For no real reason I felt this was the beginning of the end."

The play that Alfaro wrote shows few traces of that particular situation, but it captures the moment we intuit that everything could change and that our comfortable, set lives may hold new and unsettling discoveries just around the corner. As Alfaro started to turn her real-life scare into a play, it crystallized around four fictional friends, each with their own particular concerns. Jeremy, a 64-year-old Jewish writer, works on his next great novel; his spike-heeled sister Trish is just out of work as a realtor; his best friend Koji is angling to direct King Lear; Koji's wife Emily is trying to maintain ties with her increasingly estranged son.

The quartet has been friends for decades, making their careers, raising a child, and meeting for often boisterous conversation at the Royal East, a Chinese restaurant in Central Square. They are satisfied with the consistent pleasures of their routine lives and have accepted the compromises they made years ago. As Alfaro says of her own Harvard Square life, "I could never consider leaving Cambridge because of my friends. When you've lived in a place for so long, you have your friends' books in your bookcases, their paintings on your walls. You meet for teas and lunches and dinners. You bump into someone you know every time you run an errand in the Square."

The possibility of shaking up that long-held balance held real dramatic potential for Alfaro. What if there was a new chapter in our lives, just about to begin? Disrupting the status quo started with a bump in Jeremy's health, an unexplained shortness of breath. "This is the first time anything like this has happened," Jeremy says in the play. "It's funny — when you are young 'the first time' means something great, but when you're our age 'the first time' means a heart attack of a stroke."

Alfaro, in her seventies, views the inner emotional lives of the retired and retiring with a candor and a sense of vigor rarely seen on American stages where characters past a certain age are often relegated to supporting parts. Alfaro instead puts characters in their sixties front and center, emphasizes their intelligence and sexuality, and isn't afraid to show them in unsympathetic moments. These qualities make Alfaro a surprising and fresh voice on a field cluttered with "emerging" playwrights in their twenties and thirties.

For those Cantabrigians who know Alfaro, though, she has a particularly personal appeal. "I'm a very good listener and not above stealing my friends' best lines and putting them in my plays," she says. "I tell all my friends I've based my characters on them so they better come to the show."

Charles Haugland

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