CAMBRIDGE - A few years ago, Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro was cooking paella for a gathering of friends at her home. One minute, the skillet was in her hand. The next minute, she was flat on the floor, having toppled over for no apparent reason. This would be a disturbing predicament at any age, but it was especially unsettling because she was in her late 60s at the time and in otherwise decent health. “I just remember thinking, ‘This has to be the beginning of the end,’ ’’ she recalls.
Her husband, retired Tufts University literature professor Gustavo Alfaro, rushed to her side and ushered her into the bedroom, where she proceeded to direct dinner preparations for the rest of the evening. The party went on. She was fine the next morning.
And a play was born.
The paella incident inspired Alfaro to write “Before I Leave You,’’ a play about four Cambridge denizens on the cusp of old age. Its world-premiere production begins tonight and runs through Nov. 13 at the Huntington Theatre Company.
The characters, longtime friends ensconced in the insular world of academe, are forced to ask questions about life’s final chapter. What happens when the kids move out and the bones start creaking? What happens when a friend falls inexplicably ill? “It’s like death is suddenly sitting at the dining room table,’’ Alfaro explains. “Do you run away or do you stick around?’’
The plot has some parallels to Alfaro’s own life, although she is quick to tell you that the characters are entirely fictional. The 72-year-old playwright and her husband have lived in Harvard Square for nearly five decades, and she’s been writing plays for more than 30 years, plugging away with occasional productions at scrappy mom-and-pop theaters. She spends every morning writing in bed, with pages sprawled across the covers. “If I get stuck on a scene, I just take a nap,’’ she says.
She’s penned some 40 plays, but despite small productions here and in other cities, her career has been largely one of quiet perseverance. That all changed last year, when she was accepted into the Huntington Playwriting Fellows program, which was established in 2003 to nurture local talent. One thing led to another, and she soon became one of only a handful of fellows to receive a full production at the theater.
“I think she expected a nice ‘No, thank you,’ ’’ says Lisa Timmel, the Huntington’s director of new work. Regional theaters are often reluctant to do new plays, especially in tough economic times. And plays by unknown writers do not exactly draw huge advance ticket sales.
But something about the play struck the folks at the Huntington. The autumnal theme inherently appeals to theatergoers of a certain age, who make up a significant part of the company’s subscribers. And the Cambridge milieu, with its references to the Royal East restaurant and the Peabody Museum, is familiar territory to anyone who recognizes the inescapable influence of that fine academic institution that dominates the “Square.’’
Director Jonathan Silverstein says the play captures the particular essence of Cambridge, which, in his view, is a world unto its own. “Cambridge has its own special insularity, and I mean that in a beautiful, cocoon-like way,’’ he says. When he was first hired to direct “Before I Leave You,’’ he made the journey across the Charles River from Boston and discovered that Alfaro’s cozy home, with its overflowing bookshelves and well-worn Oriental carpets, could be a setting for the play.
It is also a schemata of her life. The Alfaros live in a pencil-thin, antique house tucked between two towering cement-block buildings belonging to Harvard University. Alfaro can look out her window and see Radcliffe College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in the early 1960s and met her husband, then a graduate student at Harvard. The couple bought their home in 1978 - a time when, as one of her characters says in a draft of the play, “you could afford to buy houses in Cambridge.’’ There were two prospective buyers at the time: the Alfaros and Harvard. The owner, however, was an elderly Yale graduate, and he chose the modest couple over his longtime academic rival. Harvard still comes calling with offers, Alfaro says, but the couple shares a particular delight in hanging on to their prime piece of real estate. “The house is a long, skinny needle in Harvard’s side,’’ she says, with more than a measure of glee.
It is here that the Alfaros raised their two children, Anna and Pablo. (“One is a fashion designer, and the other is in finance, working on ‘options,’ ’’ she notes.) It is here, among the eclectic mix of Kabuki masks, Latin American figurines, and sculptures made by their daughter, that Alfaro writes her plays. It is here, in the cubbyhole of an office lined with graying theater posters and programs, that her writing career is displayed on the wall.
There is a broadside for “Behind Enemy Lines,’’ Alfaro’s first play, which was about the Japanese internment camps. The play, written in 1980, was produced out of the blue - as Alfaro tells it, anyway - by the People’s Theatre, a long-defunct troupe that held forth at a storefront in Inman Square, and by New York’s Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. But Alfaro is self-deprecating about those productions. The play, she says, coincided with congressional hearings on the internment camps, and the political climate was ripe for what she describes as a “moribund play that had trailing bad reviews across the country.’’
Alfaro is a third-generation Japanese-American. Her father was a literature professor at the University of Michigan who spent the World War II years teaching Japanese to American soldiers in Ann Arbor. She is still angry about the internment camps, but she doesn’t define herself as a “Japanese-American playwright,’’ not in the slightest. The Asian patriarch in “Before I Leave You,’’ she says, explodes the stereotypical notion of the Asian as “a victim of a very decent sort.’’
Her works, as illustrated by the posters on her wall, range from a monologue about Watergate figure Martha Mitchell to a piece about Alzheimer’s disease to a play about a fictional Latin American dictator.
Now, writing close to home in “Before I Leave You,’’ she is on the cusp of a more elaborate production than she’s ever had before. But if the pressure of the big time unsettles her, she isn’t showing it. “If she is overly nervous or overly freaked out, I’m not sure,’’ Silverstein says. “She seems so calm.’’ And the diminutive playwright certainly doesn’t show her age; in manner and appearance, she could be several decades younger.
But perhaps it is because she is so mature that she is taking it all in stride. “The idea of parlaying [this production] into something else is not so intense at my age,’’ she says. “I think the great thing about not being young is that you can more or less go back to what you’ve been doing.’’
And what she has been doing is writing plays. She is currently working on a play called “Mammal Heat,’’ about a robot Gollum - and you don’t get any more eclectic than that. As for the future, she is characteristically deadpan. “As my husband said, ‘At 72, this could be the beginning of a brilliant career.’