Fresh from playing basketball, a slightly out-of-breath Fiona Robert dials our office. She’s returning a call, which she apologizes for missing. But, you know, basketball beckoned.
You might guess that the high-school senior is something of a jock. Actually, her family relocated here four years ago from Indiana so she could pursue her love of acting by attending the Chicago Academy for the Arts. The move paid off—she’s about to play her first lead in a professional production, the Steppenwolf for Young Adults world premiere of fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life, which opens February 28.
“I actually don’t play basketball. Jo, my character, is a really good basketball player,” explains Robert, who just turned 18. “I’ve been trying to get my friends to play with me, but I go to arts school, so they’re all like, ‘What?!’ I just try to dribble wherever I go.”
As you can guess from the title, fml finds inspiration in the work of McCullers, a Georgia native and author whose debut novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, caused a literary sensation in 1940. Still relevant after all these decades, it boasts a modern-day following that includes high-school students and Oprah’s Book Club.
“I’m in the process of reading it again, actually,” Roberts says. “I really enjoy her style a lot. I was in Georgia for Christmas, so I dragged my family to her house.”
Written when McCullers was only 23, Lonely Hunter interweaves the stories of five isolated people, including teenage tomboy Mick Kelly. A stage adaptation ran in the late fall, the first half of Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ two-part season. To follow it up, the program commissioned Chicago playwright Sarah Gubbins to craft fml, which confronts the topic of high-school bullying.
That’s a timely issue, given 2011’s rash of media attention to suicides among taunted adolescents (especially LGBT youth); it also reflects Lonely Hunter’s themes about dealing with “the sometimes-shattering loneliness of human existence,” Gubbins says. As she thought about Mick, Gubbins ultimately created Jo, a protagonist who plays basketball, draws comics and gets harassed by other students because she’s lesbian.
Creating Jo onstage is giving Robert quite the acting workout. Excepting “a couple of incidents, my school is pretty accepting about the gay issue,” says Robert, who identifies as heterosexual. But an acquaintance from a different high school committed suicide after relentless teasing about her sexuality.
That sad reality fueled the playwright, a La Grange native who didn’t come out until after high school. (fml is set in the same suburb.) “I would like to think that the situation isn’t as bad as it used to be, or that it’s always been this bad and we’re just starting to pay attention,” Gubbins says. “I have a suspicion, though, that it’s more dire because of social media and cyberbullying. When I’ve talked to teens, they say time and time again: There’s no escaping it now.”
That helps explain the play’s title, a commonly texted acronym. (It stands for a harsh phrase of frustration, “f*** my life.”) “When I first heard about it, I was like, ‘Huh! Steppenwolf is doing a show called fml? Interesting,’ ” Robert says. “It’s such a commonly used phrase in my generation, but I have to explain what it means to parents of friends and other adults I talk to.
“Over Christmas, my family in Georgia asked about it,” she continues, laughing as she recalls the story. “My mom was sitting in the corner saying, ‘bleep my life! Just say, bleep my life!’ They’re okay, I think. I’ve got the Steppenwolf behind me, so they believe it’s legitimate.”
Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ world premiere of fml runs February 28–March 18.