Spalding Gray: MIA/RIP

by Bret Fetzer

By the time you read this, Spalding Gray may have been found after having had a new adventure, which he will turn into observant, incisive storytelling. Sadly, it's more likely that his body has been dredged from a body of water--that the depression he endured since a near-fatal car accident has led him to suicide. (For details, see Last Days' Thursday, page 9.)

Gray remains best known for his autobiographical monologue Swimming to Cambodia, which recounts playing a small role in the movie The Killing Fields and encompasses fights with his girlfriend Renee (later his wife) and the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. The film version brought Gray out of the New York performance world where he'd begun his career with experimental theater company the Wooster Group. Several of his later monologues were made into films, and almost all have been published--Monster in a Box, Gray's Anatomy, It's a Slippery Slope, and others. He also acted in numerous films, ranging from True Stories to Beaches.

What set Gray's work apart was how intimately he drew his audience into his life. Though certainly Gray didn't tell everything, you felt that he'd described everything that mattered, no matter how it reflected on him. When he left Renee--a woman who'd stuck with him through endless neurotic wafflings--fans took it personally, as if they had to take sides in the divorce. When a friend of mine heard about Gray's disappearance, she said, "I feel as if someone I know has died and, simultaneously, as if something has happened to a character in fiction."

In Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill, Gray played a hotel resident who killed himself. "Steven allowed me to show my sadness, which is my bottom line," said Gray in an interview. "Enormous amounts of sadness that I don't allow myself to show in my work. I'm too frightened to make an audience sit through an hour and a half of that."

In 2001, Gray fractured his skull in a car accident in Ireland. Since then, despite the efforts of doctors and psychiatrists, he suffered from a profound depression. At his most recent appearance in Seattle, at Bumbershoot 2002, he was visibly weaker than at his many previous performances here at On the Boards. He had only recently finished a workshop performance of a new monologue, in part about the accident; originally called Black Spot, it had been retitled Life Interrupted.

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