Dancing with death | VailDaily.com

Dancing with death

Jennifer Harper

Kristin Skvorc/Summit DailyPlay-writer Paullette MacDougal, center, who lives in Edwards, laughs with her husband Frank, left, and director Melissa Amato as she watches "Waltzing the Reaper" Wednesday at the Breckenridge Theatre. Paullette wrote the play and is an award-winning film maker and playwright. The play opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. and goes through the weekend at the Breckenridge Theatre. All proceeds go to Bristlecone Home Care and Hospice.

BRECKENRIDGE – Mark Twain said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”And Vera is ready to go.Bristlecone Health Services presents “Waltzing the Reaper,” a play written by Paullette MacDougal, who lives in Edwards, and directed by Melissa Amato, at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The four-scene piece takes a humorous, yet poignant look at the patient and caregiver journey through the dying process and a last opportunity to mend a broken family relationship.The two-person play features Vera (Sandra Willis), the dying patient, and her well-coifed, dutiful and somewhat rigid daughter-in-law, Elizabeth (Kelly Butler).All treatment options for Vera’s illness have been exhausted, and she knows she’s nearing the end. Wishing to live out her days with dignity, she made her desire for “Do Not Resuscitate” orders known through a living will. She’s ready to trade in her drab hospital gown for her cozy purple silk pajamas, her sterile sheets for her beautiful antique couch, six more months living in the hospital with machines keeping her alive for only a few more days or weeks at home. However, no one in her family or the hospital will allow her wishes to be carried out, except potentially for her uptight daughter-in-law, Elizabeth.After seeing this version of the play (the play was originally written for only one actress, playing both parts) performed Wednesday morning for the first time, MacDougal hugged and thanked Willis and Butler with tears in her eyes. The tears were already brimming in the eyes of the two actresses while still on stage.

MacDougal said there was both an impetus and an inspiration for writing the play. The impetus came about because of another play she had co-written with Joan Weimer called “BackTalk,” which appealed to those in medical markets. She was looking to write more material to suit similar audiences, but what she ended up with was a play that has universal appeal: Everyone can relate to living, loving and dying.”When you get to a certain age, you start thinking about these things,” she said. “It was really … my own search for a better way to end living.”Her inspiration came from her own grandmother’s death.”I was not with her when she died. I always felt guilty about that,” she said. “This is a memorial to my grandmother.”Willis’ portrayal of Vera’s final days is beautiful – audiences will laugh with her and cry with her, be angry with her and be at peace with her. Those who see this performance will walk away happy to still have to scrub dishes, sit in traffic, deal with difficult people, smell flowers, eat junk food, love and be loved – happy to be alive. It offers the reminder that “for all of us, it’s only a matter of when.” And, as Vera says, “I wasted so much time worrying about things.”As a former hospice nurse, Willis saw many patients in Vera’s shoes. She said she thinks she was able to help a lot of people through her work. Having prior experience in this field doesn’t make the play any less moving for Willis, though.

“I get very emotional in rehearsal,” she said. “Sometimes I cry the entire closing act.”Butler’s Elizabeth shows audiences that change is possible, there are always laughs to be had in life, and it’s never too late to mend a broken relationship.”I have a sister who is Elizabeth. If my sister was waiting in traffic, she wouldn’t say she waited for 40 minutes; she would say she waited for 42 minutes,” Butler said. “I modeled Elizabeth after her.”Like Willis, the “Waltzing” script is also close to Butler’s heart – her father-in-law is dying of cancer.”He’s been a father to me, a friend. He was the best man at our wedding,” Butler said. “Saying these things to Vera is very real to me.”MacDougal said she had no idea that Elizabeth was such a comic relief in the show until she saw it for the first time Wednesday. She was, however, prepared for the tears.”When I watch my own plays, they touch me. So I don’t wear mascara, because it would run,” MacDougal said.

Not only do Butler and Willis cause the audience to both laugh and cry about the taboo subject of death, they also exude a great deal of warmth from the stage. The chemistry and bond between the two women is evident even when their characters aren’t on the best terms.”We’ve just developed this great relationship,” Butler said.What: “Waltzing the Reaper”When: 7:30 p.m. Friday with a silent auction, cash bar and refreshments at 6:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. Sunday with a chance to meet playwright Paullette MacDougal after the showWhere: Breckenridge Theatre, located at 121 S. Ridge St.

Tickets: $20 (suggested minimum donation)Jennifer Harper can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 248, or at jharper@summitdaily.com.Vail, Colorado