What love looks like when death is near
WILLIAMSTOWN — A gas lamp. A cold night in sleeping bags. A pop song. What would you remember in your last hour alive?
Australian playwright Tom Holloway sets two people on that outer edge in "And No More Shall We Part" at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Aug. 10 to 21.
Pam and Don are a middle-class couple living outside Hartford in a house they have paid for. They have been married for three decades, happily all in all. Their children have grown and on their own.
And Pam has terminal cancer.
In Holloway's telling, they move back and forth through time as they navigate the hardest question in their lives — when and how to die.
Tony and Emmy Award-nominee Alfred Molina, known for film roles from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," joined Emmy and Golden Globe Award-nominee Jane Kaczmarek, whose many television roles include Lois from "Malcolm in the Middle" and Obie Award-winning director Anne Kauffman to talk about the show at the '62 Center.
Pam wants to take her own life before she becomes too ill, Kaczmarek said.
"Not causing your husband and kids the grief of seeing you diminish is an act of love," she said, in Pam's eyes.
Her husband does not want to accept that act, for her and himself and others.
"Don is a reluctant ally," Molina said.
So they wrestle together with her need to control her own end and with his grief.
"They struggle to be in step," he said.
"Which they have been for 30 years before that," Kaczmarek said.
They struggle to face a question Kaczmarek, Kauffman and Molina find hard to imagine.
They have all talked about what they would do, Kaczmarek said, and she joked that she would argue for a morphine pump and watch all the television shows she has wanted to see.
"We can only guess how we would behave in the face of this," Kauffman said. "What Tom does elegantly [Pam and Don] sometimes act elegantly and sometimes do not."
"They are deeply flawed and supremely human," Molina said. "I think they are noble in what they are prepared to give up. Getting there is messy. And there are laughs along the way."
"Quite a few," Kaczmarek agreed. "We will find something funny, and we ask — would people be laughing at this moment?"
But looking back to her own experiences in saying goodbye to friends, she recognized that they could be.
She remembered sitting with a close friend near the end, telling her how she would remember her. Her friend looked back at her and said "Jane, I'm not dead yet."
Even though she would be not long afterward, she could laugh for a moment.
So Pam and Don hold onto their years together and reach for each other in this barest time.
"Ultimately, it's not a show about assisted suicide as a social and political issue," Molina said — "it's about how you show and express and display love when the other person needs it the most. How does your love manifest? Doing what you want or what they want, sacrificing yourself, doing something greater. That's the heart of the play."
Don and Pam think too about what her illness and their choices can mean for other people close to them.
"Pam feels as though, as a mother, it would be hard to do this with her children present, and she is steadfast," Kaczmarek said.
She also wants to protect them from any possibility of trouble with the law.
"Don feels differently," Molina said.
Kaczmarek considered the way the children would feel, and the ways people may avoid death, and what it may cost them. Her uncle Bobby died at 46 of cancer, she said, and as his body began to fail, for a time he did not want his mother to see him. But toward the end, he wanted to be with her, if she could have come to him.
Kauffman learned that her grandfather had died in San Fransisco when a friend, a reporter for a Jewish newspaper, called her to offer sympathy. No one in the family had let her know.
Talking about loss can be painful, and yet not talking about it can hurt as much or more, and Pam and Don are no more prepared for this final confrontation than anyone would be.
"Hard — it's hard," Molina said, "and the way Tom has dealt with it has a level of articulacy about the feelings — they express through attrition. It's a struggle to get the thoughts out. It's a battle, and [Pam and Don] don't mesh. They are not sophisticated people talking in a sophisticated way. They don't have that capacity, and the event is so imminent, they can't be objective."
"And they know each other so well," Kauffman said.
They can communicate sometimes without saying much, she said. When they cannot articulate in an intense moment, they can read each other well.
This layered communication and movement in time give the play a rhythm of mystery and revelation, she said.
And they can learn about each other and love each other even here, even now. Revelations can come at any time.
Kaczmarek's grandmother lived to be 103, she said, and not long before the memorial Kaczmarek saw for the first time photographs of her at 25 with long hair like Cate Blanchett, relaxed with her husband. It moved her powerfully to see her grandmother in that moment, present and held and beautiful.
And so even a play hovering at the end may be about more than an ending.
"It's a play about life," Molina said. "It's about the struggle for life."
ON STAGE ...
What: 'And No More Shall We Part' at Williamstown Theatre Festival
When: Tuesday to Sunday Aug. 10 to 21
Where: Nikos Stage at the '62 Center
Kate Abbott is a freelance journalist at btwberkshires.com.