Study Guide

Off the Map

by Joan Ackermann

Off the Map Summary

Introduction

Off the Map was first published in 1994. It has been produced throughout the United States and has won a fair amount of critical acclaim. Most notably, Off the Map caught the eye of intelligent, independent film director, Campbell Scott. Scott, who has a propensity for moving stories from the stage to the screen, fell in love with Ackermann’s drama. The movie premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. Although it did not win awards, the film had a short national run and received complimentary reviews

The play’s title comes from the location where the Groden family lives in northern New Mexico. The family is so far removed from any sense of conventional society that they live almost completely “off the map.” With Off the Map, Ackermann constructs a memory play in which Adult Bo Groden reflects back upon one summer of her childhood. During this summer, Young Bo, an eleven-year old girl, lives with her mother and father, Arlene and Charley. Other than Charley’s friend, George, the family has little contact with the outside world. During this summer, Charley falls into a deep depression that challenges the Groden family. An unlikely visitor, William Gibbs, arrives at their doorstep to collect on back taxes. Gibbs is also suffering from depression and quickly develops a distant, unspoken bond with Charley. Strangely, Gibbs falls in love with the Grodens and their lifestyle, never returning to his life “on the map.” Beyond the sad, funny, and heartwarming moments, the Groden family and Gibbs share during the summer’s struggle with individual demons and depression, Ackermann is also able to use the memory play to question the differing freedoms Bo experiences both as a young girl and an adult banker.

 

Off the Map Summary

Act 1, Scenes 1–6

The play opens with the narrator, Adult Bo Groden. She introduces us to herself as an eleven-year old child living off the map in northern New Mexico. Young Bo is a sassy, intelligent, determined young girl. She is creative, often writing letters to large companies, complaining about products and demanding free samples. Charley, her father, is experiencing an oppressive bout with depression. The man is always crying, not sobbing: tears are constantly draining from his eyes. Arlene, her mother, is a strong, stable woman who is able to support the family through Charley’s debilitating depression. Adult Bo also introduces us to Charley’s friend, George, a large, quiet man with a deep dedication to the Grodens.

Young Bo quickly expresses her desire to leave her life off the map. She plans to achieve her goal by applying for an American Express credit card so she can, “buy a one-way ticket out of this hell hole.” Although the Grodens rarely receive mail outside of Bo’s free samples, they receive a letter stating that they are being audited. Arlene finds the prospect amusing because the family makes less than five thousand dollars a year.

Charley’s depression is taking a toll on Arlene, Bo and George. Everyone wants to help him and he wants to help himself, but they are at a loss. Charley has given way to endorsing physical pain, willingly pulling his own diseased tooth. He relishes the discomfort because at least the pain allows him to feel something. Arlene finally asks George to go to town and visit a psychiatrist. She knows the doctor will not give George medicine for Charley, so she asks him to pretend he has depression. George agrees to go see the psychiatrist because he is willing to do anything to help his friend.

A few days after George visits the psychiatrist, George and Bo go fishing. During their outing, Bo asks George a lot of questions about banking, account numbers, and social security numbers, foreshadowing Bo’s application for an American Express credit card. George reads her questions as curiosity and answers all of Bo’s questions. During their discussion, George also talks about visiting the psychiatrist and that he must return for several more counseling sessions before the doctor will prescribe any medications.

Bo continues her dedication to writing companies, demanding freebies. She writes Hostess stating that the Twinkie samples they sent “contained what I can only describe as a rodent part. Internal organ or foot, I’m not sure.” Bo’s letter to Hostess confirms her sassy, sneaky sensibilities and supports the view of her as a young, creative con artist.

Act 1, Scenes 7–15

In scene seven, William Gibbs, the IRS agent sent to audit the Grodens, arrives at their home. The family lives so far off the map that Gibbs arrives on foot. He has parked his car many miles away and has trekked through the desert to find their home. Upon his arrival, he spots Arlene gardening in the nude. Startled, Gibbs screams and turns his back out of respect. However, Arlene is unabashed with her nakedness. With his back turned, Gibbs explains that he is an IRS agent sent to audit the Grodens and Arlene invites him inside.

Once inside, Bo is upset that her mother is naked and demands that Arlene put on some clothes. The young girl introduces herself to Gibbs as “Cecilia-Rose,” claiming that she is just around to help out Charley and Arlene. Gibbs reveals that he’s been stung by bees and he begins to feel very weak. He falls into a terrible fever and is left weak and delirious on the family’s couch for three days.

During his days on the couch, Charley wakes Gibbs once to give the man water and ask if he has ever been depressed. Gibbs answers, “I’ve never not been depressed,” explaining that he has felt emotionally damaged his entire life. Gibbs tells Charley that his depression started...

(The entire section is 1623 words.)