For Gaffney, art imitates life: Personal tragedy informs Moraga
actor's role in 'By and By'
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Remember this line: "The fundamental work of the world (is) the loop of nothing to everything."
It comes near the end of playwright Lauren Gunderson's "By and By," in a production presented by Berkeley's Shotgun Players, with its last performance this Sunday, June 23. It features Moraga-based actor Michael Patrick Gaffney as "Steven," the tussle-haired, geekish father of a college-aged daughter who's just discovered she's a science experiment.
Cloned from the genes of "Denise," her namesake/mother, and horrified by the lies her father has told her in a misguided effort to protect her from the truth, the play begins amid a raging father-daughter quarrel. As the heat of their argument chars their live's narrative facade, Steven and Denise tread on the brittle emotional shards left by the car accident that swept the 24-year-old wife/mother from their world.
"Nothing to everything" refers not only to human cloning, but to translating human existence into functional, eternal circularity, and that has everything to do with Gaffney.
Twenty-nine years ago, he was a 19-year-old college junior living near his childhood home in Broken Arrow, Okla. The Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, he got a call from his father.
"He said, 'Your sister has been killed in an accident.' It was 1984, she was 23. Single car crash. I had just seen her," he says, sounding rather like he's reading a scripted news report.
His sister Christine was driving late at night, on the way to visit her boyfriend. Gaffney says the family never knew the circumstances of the accident. "They didn't have air bags and it was Oklahoma at night -- she probably wasn't wearing a seat belt."
Gaffney's a professional, so delving into a role to exhume the quirks and desires under a character's surface is natural. Usually, the job requires a degree of simulation, correlating a related experience by "playing pretend." Actors visit prisons or spend a day teaching a classroom of screaming kindergartners or shadow a chef, for example.
But when art imitates life, Gaffney wondered, does the process differ? During the course of the new play's ever-changing development and its performance run through June 23, he's finding surprising answers.
"My preparation process is not the same, but it never is," he says. "I researched grief and I have a phrase I keep in a notebook. I read it before I go onstage: 'Steven's pain, his grief, is dark and deep: have the courage to go there.' "
Notably, with all his methodical preparation, Gaffney didn't talk to his parents or his two remaining siblings about his sister's death. Perhaps because he never really has. But that doesn't mean it hasn't shaped and informed him just as much as the genes he inherited from his parents.
"It changed my family forever. It's an overlooked grief. When you lose a sibling, you're dealing with the parents' loss. There's guilt that you're alive and your sister is dead," he says. "And with sudden death, it doesn't allow preparation, the way an illness does."
Gaffney initially softened the blow with alcohol and by "grieving loudly, like loud, Irish Catholics do." His father never expressed his feelings and his mother didn't "come back to life" until Gaffney's niece was born and the birth signaled beauty and hope. But Catherine's death made one thing easier -- when he told his parents he was gay, acceptance was immediate.
"After you lose a child, the fact that your son is gay is really no big deal," he says.
It would be simplistic -- and false -- to say Gaffney auditioned for "By and By" out of a subconscious need to address his own "dark and deep" pain. Instead, the play's science and not-too-distant-future setting intrigued him. If given the chance to clone his sister, he says he wouldn't, because "it wouldn't be her: a person is their circumstances."
Still, after meditatively pacing through his family history like a labyrinth, his equity actor control cracks and the fundamental loop of his life's work leads to genuine tears and gentle revelation.
"As actors, we do substitutions, we personalize a role. It's been a long time since my sister was killed. You know, I think I got to be with her again, for a brief time. I got to remember her. With death, it's the saddest thing, to think you'll be forgotten."