Local groups staging play to spur dialogue about death

MIDDLEBURY — As Hospice Volunteer Services Director Priscilla Baker knows, death can be a tough subject to discuss — particularly when it involves one’s own mortality or that of a loved one.
“We are a death-phobic society,” she said on Thursday. “We want to help people find the right language and safety in the conversation.”
What better way to do that, she and her colleagues reasoned, than by putting that discussion on stage in dramatic form, allowing local actors to lead a frank dialogue on death that Baker hopes is carried on within the households of audience members when they return home.
With that in mind, Hospice Volunteer Services is teaming up with local thespians, Porter Hospital, Addison County Home Health and Hospice, Addison Respite Care Home and Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center to stage a play called “Vesta” on Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society worship hall on Charles Avenue in Middlebury.
“Vesta,” written by Bryan Harnetiaux, charts the end-of-life story of a septuagenarian woman (Vesta). The play, featuring seven characters, chronicles Vesta’s flagging health and how she, her family and caregivers react to it and are changed by it.
The play presentation is somewhat of a departure for the sponsoring organizations, which annually organize an end-of-life education series. That series has in the past offered speakers — such as author Steven Kiernan — to speak on the issue of palliative care and coming to terms with death.
“This was the first time we have used theater as a vehicle for our end-of-life series,” Baker said.
Baker became aware of “Vesta” — one in a trilogy of Harnetiaux plays — through a Hospice Foundation of America newsletter.
“I chose ‘Vesta’ because I felt it could most honestly resonate with the people of Addison County,” Baker said.
The sponsoring organizations agreed, and were able to purchase the right to stage the play.
Next came the task of recruiting a director and cast for “Vesta.” She found her lead and director within the roster of Wellspring, a group of volunteers who sing for hospice patients. Bristol residents (and spouses) Diana Bigelow and Jim Stapleton will serve as lead and director, respectively, for the play. Both are seasoned members of the county’s theater community.
“I have seen other theater work they have done in Bristol and Middlebury,” Baker said. “It was a no-brainer.”
Both signed on to the project without hesitation.
“I read the script and said I would be delighted to play that (Vesta) role,” Bigelow said.
Stapleton studied the play and decided it would be best performed as a stage reading, rather than as a conventional theater performance. This, he reasoned, would allow the characters to interact while giving real emphasis to the dialogue.
“This is a play about people, issues, choices and relationships — not so much about ‘action,’” he said. “The actors will talk to each other and will not always be facing the audience.”
Based on his experience with stage readings, Stapleton believes the audience will forget the actors are holding scripts because they will be drawn into the dialogue.
Rounding out the cast will be actors Mark Ciociola, Robin Hewitt, Melissa MacDonald, Mack Roark, Jennifer Wagner and Cathy Walsh. All have prior theater experience, Stapleton noted. All signed up readily for a project that carries a special resonance for everyone involved. For example, Wagner has been a part of the end-of-life journey of three of her friends.  Hewitt sat with her father during his final hours.
It is indeed an issue that people can relate to, even if they might find it tough to discuss, Baker noted.
“It’s very real,” she said. “I think many people in the audience will be watching this play and nodding their heads.”
Organizers believe the play will inspire people to discuss the difficult topic amongst themselves. Addison County Hospice Chaplain Gary Lewis will lead a discussion following the play, which is free and will begin at 7 p.m.
Stapleton believes staging a play such as Vesta is like symbolically giving the audience members permission to engage in a subject area about which they are very afraid.
“It allows people to address things in themselves that they would otherwise feel inhibited about doing” he said, alluding to a tactic used by the late Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), an innovator of experimental theatre.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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