A professional headshot photo of Nur Muhammad Mahi Shafiullah

Nur Muhammad "Mahi" Shafiullah

I am trying to teach robots to do all my chores at @NYU-robot-learning, Previously @facebookresearch


Can You Forgive Her?

Published Mar 25, 2016


Today, I went to watch a play, and it was fantastic!

The production was the world premiere of the play “Can You Forgive Her”, by Huntington Theater Company. It was written by playwright Gina Gionfriddo and directed by Peter DuBois. The play consists of five main characters, Graham, Miranda, Tanya, David and a cameo from the character Sateesh, mostly discussed over the play as only “The Indian”. The whole play takes place in only a single stage, at a single stretch of time, and all the characters enter and exit the stage in their own pace, in a real-time setting.

The play opens at Graham’s place, a New Jersey beach town – on Halloween night (which we can also deduce from a few carved pumpkins on the set). We can see Graham and Miranda in the set, sitting together, talking about a scene that just appeared at a bar. From their conversation, we get to know that both Miranda and Graham were at a bar just before this scene. Miranda was at the bar with Sateesh, and another couple, where Sateesh turned violent and threatened to murder her. To keep Miranda safe, Graham has brought her to his house, or rather, his mother’s house, and this sets the premise for the play to build on.

We can see the play open at Graham’s house as it is built with two doors, a kitchen and a living room. Most of the play takes place in the living room of the house, where besides the usual furniture, a plethora of boxes clutter the space. From Graham and Miranda’s conversation, we learnt that those boxes are full of writings of his mother, who was never a very successful writer and couldn’t get published, ever. Reason behind her failure was also discussed, her obsession with a single topic – divorce with her husband. She explored different formats of writing but the same idea, and as a result, could never get published. Finally, she left all her writings to Graham in various formats, and Graham, feeling guilt over her mother’s death and his absence at that time, is having difficulty in reaching a decision over what to do with those.

As the conversation goes on about Graham’s “sad mother”, Miranda starts to open up about her own. Through her description, we start to get our first glimpse at her extravagant lifestyle. We know that she lives with her mother in New York to fulfill her dream, and she lies to her mother telling her she is a teacher. In parallel, we also start to learn about the string of events that has caused Miranda to come stay at Graham’s house. We know that there is someone out there who wants to kill Miranda with a knife, who is currently hunting her, and Graham and the bartender just spirited her away from the bar for her own safety. We know that person’s name is Sateesh, he is Miranda’s suitor who booked a hotel room for himself and Miranda, and we know that he got mad after learning about the other guy Miranda has on the side. Here, Miranda goes off in some borderline racist slandering about the “Indian”, making it apparent that she never had much feelings for Sateesh, but why she was with him still remains somewhat of a mystery.

Talking more about the guy Miranda has on the side, we come to know that the “arrangement” they have is highly unusual. We know that the guy’s name is David, who is a particularly rich, old doctor. Miranda says he has no sense of emotional attachment, and when Graham asks how can he be a good man, Miranda says good maybe too strong a word for him. We come to know that in their “arrangement”, Miranda sleeps with him while David supports her extravagant lifestyle – by bailing her out from tough situations. Actually, it is revealed that in their “arrangement”, Miranda only sleeps with David two nights a week while David writes her a monthly paycheck. On Miranda’s insistence, David has to take her to dates beforehand, but that doesn’t fool Miranda or Graham – they know it’s just a form of prostitution. Continuing this thread, we discover more and more about Miranda, the headline of all is this – she is drowned up to neck in debt, and she is taking lovers to help her pay that off. This financial insecurity doesn’t seem to getting better as her profligate lifestyle just keeps her spending more and more while she tries to find an easy way out.

From this conversation, we also get to know what the danger for Miranda is. Miranda says she is being chased by Sateesh, the Indian, because she took him to an outlet mall, had him spend two thousand dollars on her, and then had him drive by to check in on David. Sateesh also happens to have a set of knives because she lost her roommate’s knives and had Sateesh buy new ones for her. Taking gifts from him and not reciprocating any feelings, along with the knowledge of another lover has finally pushed Sateesh over the edge.

After confessing so many deep, dark secrets, Miranda is really surprised by the fact that Graham isn’t gay, as per her assumption. She keeps insisting that straight men don’t get the “big blackness” that exists in her life. She is even more surprised to learn he is engaged to the bartender, Tanya, and she is already giving her conditions on getting married. She urges him to dump all her mother’s writings in a storage, forget about it all, and live his own life. This visibly puts Graham outside his comfort zone, and before he answers, Miranda asks him to dance, and while they dance, Tanya comes back.

Now, the return of Tanya adds a new dimension in the play. It’s revealed early on that Tanya knows about what Miranda does for a living. She preaches a self-help book that she claims helped her get out of debt while being a single mother. She says she got out of a five thousand dollar debt, while Miranda claims their problems are nothing equal because she is in two hundred thousand dollars in debt. They get into an argument, where Tanya supports the side of living frugally but debt free and Miranda keeps insisting she has the right to be happy at whatever the cost is. This argument takes another turn when Tanya gets to know David is at a party with her friend Martha in the island, and Sateesh knows where he is. She insists on Miranda calling David to make sure he is safe in case Sateesh turns up at his home. As a result of the phone call, David turns up at Graham’s house, or rather her mother’s house.

David is presented in this play as an emotionally stoic person, who has enough money to spend on everything but dreads emotional attachment. As a result, he advises Graham to sell her mother’s possession, and donate those to charity as he himself did. We get another version of the same story from Miranda. She claims David is hated by her wife and her children because he is unable to maintain an emotional relation with either of them. So, to prove that he can care about anything but himself, David donates his money to charity, so he has a comeback when someone claims he can’t care about other human beings.

Miranda’s version of the story is quickly disputed, though, when she starts an inquisition against David concerning his relationship with Martha. It’s quickly revealed that David is in the semblance of a romantic relationship with Martha, or at least from Miranda’s viewpoint it seems so. Miranda gets mad about finding out that David has been using the training he has been receiving in humanity from her and using those all in Martha. She gets desperate about it, and in turn, tries to make Graham believe that her mother cared more about herself, and thus Graham does not have to feel guilty about not caring about her mother or her writing. Graham says his mother taped his letter onto the wall before attaching a cupboard on that during the time of a renovation. Miranda challenges him saying there is nothing behind the cupboard – and if there isn’t, he really does not have any obligation towards her mother. Rather, he should dump all her writings in the trash, call off her engagement with Tanya and just run off with her. Graham is pushed over his limit by these, and decides he will break the cupboard to reveal what’s behind this. He brings an axe, breaks down the cupboard to find a piece of paper to his relief. But that relief was short lived as he discovers the paper only contained his mother’s poem on divorce, and not the letter he wrote. Miranda proceeds to entice Graham more, while Tanya proceeds to go outside to clear her head.

At that moment, we see a figure with a knife come and knock on the door, who is presumably Sateesh. The incident throws the whole set into chaos. Everyone tries to hold the door closed, while Miranda demands recognition of her emotion from someone. David refuses to take her off the paycheck (because if he pays off Miranda’s debt, she would be gone, and David can’t have that). When she tries to convince Graham to run off with her, he refuses, which finally pushes Miranda off the edge. She declares she will let the Indian kill her and be done with it. As she storms out of the door, we can see the worry in the rest of the characters.

But Miranda doesn’t get killed. She gets dragged in to the room by Sateesh, where he shames her before everyone else by just throwing money at her that’s necessary for her to get home. He takes some of his stuff, and goes back, leaving Miranda devastated and other three characters astonished. When the shock goes over, Miranda understands there is actually nowhere she can go, so she goes back to wherever David takes her. As they leave, the tumult of the night comes to a close. Graham and Tanya opens the box containing Graham’s mother’s journal, and the light fades out with them reading the journals.

The play excels at the properly depicting the multidimensionality of each of the characters. Miranda needs the money to survive, but still asks David to take her off the paycheck to give legitimacy to their relationship. Graham is engaged to a settled down woman like Tanya, but still attracted to someone as flamboyant as Miranda. David, at first description, looks like an emotionless bag of skin, but in his relationship with Martha we can see that even his heart can be kindled with romanticism. Duality like this, and their vibrant collision is what propels this play forward.

There were a few weak points in the play as well. For one, the character of Tanya is severely featureless. The playwright may even have removed the character without a significant loss of content in the play. Rather, she plays the role of catalyst in a lot of conversation, so she might only receive appreciation for that. Similarly, although Graham plays a pretty active role in the first half of the play, in the second half, he takes a greatly passive role. At one he had only one job, which is to fill up the glasses of the other characters. The sudden shift in focus is noticeable and cripples the flow of the play just a bit. Despite these flaws, the play itself was a great experience! The actors carry on the sudden turns in plot with such adeptness that sometimes it is entirely possible to forget this is not a real conversation taking place, rather imagined and rehearsed. Chris Henry Coffey played his role as Graham pretty impressively, depicting the confusion his character feels over his life pretty perfectly.

Overall, Can You Forgive Her was a great play – it’s a wonderful piece by Gina Gionfriddo, one I would recommend to anyone in the area to go and watch.

Randomly chosen favorite quotes from Goodreads.