If you heard that a play was about illness, death, and dying you would not be inclined to think comedy. But joining the two themes is possible. When done artfully, the comedic treatment can draw the audience into the maelstrom of otherwise taboo and painful issues. Playwright Ronald Ribman's 1977 Broadway production of Cold Storage, starring Martin Balsam and Len Cariou, which was set in a cancer ward, accomplished that improbable coupling of catastrophic illness and comedy. The play received a Drama Critics award. Actor Richmond Shepard later appeared in a Los Angeles production of Cold Storage, which also won an award. In 2008, Shepard resurrected his role in an off-Broadway revival of the play.
Perhaps Shepard's experiences with Cold Storage is what prompted him to direct Brenda Shoshanna's new play, Looking for Parcifal. Shoshanna, an award-winning playwright, is also a psychologist and the author of several books about illness, coping with crises, and the spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. In the '80s she was playwright-in-residence at the Jewish Repertory Theater and the Ensemble Studio Theater.
After a ten-year hiatus since her last play, Shoshanna has written a tightly crafted new play, a provocative and entertaining farcical treatment of death and dying steeped in a family's search for a missing member. Parcifal's mother, sister, and brother have been told he is at Dr. Decroy's hospice in room 1033. But is he? The room is empty. Is Parcifal dead or alive? Does he even exist? Confusing messages from the quirky Dr. Decroy and Parcifal's sexy nurse challenge reality and add to the Kafkaesque setting.
Shoshanna captures the full range of coping mechanisms evoked by death, loss, and grief: fear, denial, regret, blame, wishful thinking, false memories, and disturbing questions about the meaning of life and the role of religion. All these issues emerge from the wacky interactions among the family members and with the hospice staff.
Richmond Shepard's skillful direction eases the audience into examining their own feelings and fears about death and their recognition that dying is inevitable for all of us. Dr. Decroy's observation that life is a pre-death experience prompts the audience to reflect on the importance of celebrating life to its fullest.
The cast of Dan Burkharth, Jonathan Hedrickson, Stacey Hull, Lisa Landino, Vanna Pilgrim, Nate Steinwachs, and Marcus Watson are outstanding in sustaining the alternation of pain and comedy. Stacey Hull, as the vivacious nurse, delivers a particularly appealing and memorable performance.
Looking for Parcifal premiered at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street in NYC, on January 20, 2015. It will run until January 31st.