illness in theater
The concept of embracing illness sounds strange because in our society it's thought the brave thing to do is to fight illness. Indeed that's what the characters in the play do for most of the night. Beethoven fights his increasing loss of hearing to work on creating 33 variations of a simple waltz. Dr. Katherine Brandt struggles against a disease that is claiming her body to research why Beethoven was so obsessed with the variations.
However, it isn't until they embrace the fact that their mortality is limited that they can find the freedom to accomplish things they need to do for themselves. Beethoven went on to reinvent the language of music and Dr. Brandt gave up trying to control her adult daughter's life.
I found the themes in the play positive and uplifting. Yet I fear because one of the characters, Dr. Brandt, has a disease that will claim her body and then her life people will avoid the play because it is "too depressing".
I understand the concerns of audiences. Indeed, I had some myself. The disease Dr. Brandt has is ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. This is very personal to me as 6 months ago my wife died from ALS. I was very touched by the number of friends who came up to me before the show, at intermission and at the end to inquire how I was handling watching a woman being consumed by a disease that took my wife of 45 years,
I felt almost guilty by saying it hardly bothered me. The play isn't about the disease. To call "33 Variations" a play about a woman dying of ALS is like describing "Media" as a play about matricide.
"33 Variations" is about a woman who is taught by the disease to embrace what is good about her life and to appreciate the limited time she has left. That's what I want to remember about my wife's illness. The insight it gave her to embrace life to the fullest and appreciate all that is good about life. It didn't come easy and you have to wonder if such a gift is worth the price. But there is no denying that it is a worthy way to live and to leave life.
I don't want to give a wrong impression. There are moments in the play that made me remember things about her battle that I'd prefer to leave buried. But to avoid good art because it might be painful is to condemn yourself to only watching the Disney channel on T.V.
I also know there are moments in theater, film and music that so evoke emotions that it is touches the psyche in a deep and moving way. In the past couple of months I avoided two productions of "Our Town" because I didn't want to endure the final act graveyard scene where those who passed looked on the living and wondered why they mourned and still grieved their loss. That is a beautiful and wise scene, but one I still am not ready to deal with because I am not ready to let go of my own mourning - no matter how controlled it might be.
People suffering or dying on stage is not a reason to avoid a work of art. Plays about courage and wisdom are things we should seek out and hopefully learn from. "33 Variations" is not profound theater but it is an honest look at people who live courageous, meaningful lives. That makes it worth seeing.
It plays Tuesdays to Sundays until Oct. 3. By the way, before the final performance I will be a guest and speak to the audience with artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill on the topic of disease and the theater.