Prisoners

Prisoners

Theater – as all the narrative arts do – realizes an outward existence of our internal dramas, enabling us to see them clearly, and to meaningfully experience the feelings we have about our own like struggles. The very purpose of original Greek dramatic form was to facilitate catharsis for the audience, an evocation of emotion which relied on resonance with the characters and their moral, existential trials. A cleansing purge allowed the lessons of the story to be received, and so a fresh start for all. I have had this experience more than once, but the power of theater was made vivd for me when I attended a play as a chaperone, with challenged, troubled teens. This was a first for all of them, and during a scene change one girl turned to me and exclaimed, “It’s like my whole life is right there on that stage.” It stopped me, but I managed to say, “Yes, dear, that is the why and what of theater.” I was astounded, not at her response, but that I had had the same one, even though our two lives were nothing alike, and would never be. A play outside a play – my awareness engendered by hers. Something like it happened again for me just this week.

My friend Kathy died yesterday. I am too sad for anything today, except for the need to remember her, to keep her spirit alive. I was eight hundred miles away at the end, helpless to effect any outcome or to love her back to life. In the short week of her grave illness, I passed though all the the stages of death – denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance – except for an anger which stays with me even now. I am angry with her family – her co-workers, and her friends, too – but most emphatically with her sister and brother, her brother-in-law and step-mother, her niece and nephew, her daughter and granddaughter, who to a person, disastrously, let her down. I am certain the enormous difficulties of her past few years are the reason for her illness and death, and I put it all on them, for not being there enough, when she needed help.

The day before her death – still hoping and praying for her recovery – I saw The Prisoner, a new play by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélene Estienne here at Yale Repertory Theater. Maybe my worries disallowed engagement – although I’ll argue that being raw with trouble and sorrow assured my reception to someone else’s story – but I was not so taken with the play. It felt thin and worn. The dramaturg purported the play to explore twin themes of infraction and responsibility, but I found no touchstones or new perspectives there; rather the scenes and dialogues were trite or pandering. Although a quiet and spare space, with few actors and gently changing sets, I was not drawn into meditation, upon the characters or their situations.

On the walk home, and for a good bit after, Bruce and I talked about these and other dissatisfactions. Then our thoughts turned to Katie. Earlier in the day a DJ on my beloved local classical radio station played a piece that caught and steadied me with clarity and love and peace.You may know the song: Beautiful Dreamer, by Stephen Foster. But you have never heard it like this, performed by lyric baritone Thomas Hampsom. No surprise that Stephen Foster would speak to me over time and through tears. Kathy grew up on a thoroughbred horse farm, in bluegrass country, and Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home is the anthem that calls everyone to attention, to the sport of kings. His is the score of life in Kentucky. I played Beautiful Dreamer for Bruce that night before Kathy died, as a prayer, a remembrance, an offering, an entreaty.

My grief poured out of me, and this is what I grieved. I grieved the life she deserved, and never had. Kathy paid with her whole life for one small mistake she made forty years ago, a mistake that no one would ever hold her to account for, now, and hardly anyone even then. But fate would not forgive her debt. She was imprisoned forever by one act, one decision. No matter her penance, her good works, her contrition, the jailor only fingered his keys. So you see, Brook’s and Etienne’s play left its mark after all: Kathy was – is – The Prisoner.

I lived in the truth that our renewed friendship allowed her hope for and a path to redemption: that her grandchildren, grown to a healthy and happy adulthood would be her final atonement. They may yet be, but I wanted so badly for her to witness the victory, to know the blessing of a job well done, done right, by any standard. I wanted to stand by her as she regained the fellowship. I am undone that she did not live to see it. And I am angry at all the prisons of our own making, that lucky others do not open, break apart for us.

Katie meant the world to me. We were girls together, on the verge of being old together. She was the long-lost sister I never had; I will miss her endlessly. She was funny and witty, loyal beyond understanding. She lightened every room she was in. I mean to do her justice, to ensure that the promise of her grandchildren comes to be. It will be my tribute to her life; I pray that I do not fall short.

Here is the song Beautiful Dreamer, that I sent out to her that night. You, too, play it for Katie, to honor her spirit – the human spirit that will awake, that will go on – that will not quit.


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