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Connection is a key aspect of live theatre. We attend performances to see the world through others’ eyes, to hear about lived experiences other than our own, and to process relationships (family, lovers, career) that mirror or shed light on those in our own lives. Finding connection with people is critical and gaining deeper insights into the human condition makes us more empathetic – more human.

Because illness and disease are part of the human condition, illness as a subject can be teased out in many plays. The nuances of wellness are complicated and when used as metaphor or narrative this theme can engage through conflict and catharsis. Talking about disease (either illness in body or uneasiness/dis-ease) can be challenging between friends and family, as witnessed in You Will Get Sick. Looking back through Roundabout’s Archives, numerous plays use illness to explore the ways that people navigate difficult conversations about human connection and wellbeing. Sons of the Prophet, Suicide, Inc. and The Humans are just a few examples.

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Sons of the Prophet

Within the first scene of Sons of the Prophet (Laura Pels Theatre, 2011), we learn that the character Joseph (played by Santino Fontana) is struggling with an unnamed condition causing chronic pain.  We also learn that Gloria (played by Joanna Gleason), Joseph’s boss, is clinically depressed. The scene is comedic, and their easy banter quickly places the audience in a position to respond to these difficult conversations through their frank approach to life’s curveballs. There is no tiptoeing around their experiences and as audience members we are immediately pulled into these intimate conversations and the realities of living with injured and sick bodies, not only our own but those of the people we love and care for.    

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Suicide, Inc.

Suicide, Inc. (The Black Box, 2011) takes place in a company that writes suicide notes for people considering ending their lives, due to depression, illness, mental health, etc. Jason (played by Gabriel Ebert) has applied to work for the company after quitting his job writing Hallmark cards, citing a need to “work on something that matters.” On the surface, this is an absurdist comedy, with people who are paid to write suicide notes, a boss who sees financial opportunity in the service, and the people who seek out these intimate notes intended for their loved ones but written by strangers. Underneath the absurdity is a seriousness born from a deep need to connect; a desire to define life with meaning and a need for others to bear witness. Each character in his own way exposes different responses to pain and suffering and reveals the challenges in finding words to articulate the often-fragile state of the human experience.

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The Humans

In the 2015 production of The Humans (Laura Pels Theatre), the characters (to one degree or another) are all struggling, and each is managing illness or dis-ease. Fiona “Momo” Blake (played by Lauren Klein), the matriarch of the family, has severe dementia and is wheelchair bound, only present in disassociated words blurted out as jarring punctuation throughout the play. Aimee Blake (played by Cassie Beck), the eldest daughter, has ulcerative colitis, a fact that she finds embarrassing and uncomfortable. Aimee’s mother Deirdre (played by Jayne Houdyshell) openly discusses her daughter’s poor health during the annual Thanksgiving gathering while Aimee cringes and tries to change the subject. In this play, there are layers of conversation with varying obstacles to being understood: the banter and dialogue of a tight-knit family in which all members contribute but might not truly understand each other; the sidebar conversations that are strictly one-on-one, secretive, and fraught with misunderstanding; and the one-sided conversations each member has with Fiona, as they try unsuccessfully to connect with her. As the play progresses into the final scene, an eerie aural presence manifests in the apartment where the dinner took place, a metaphor for the dis-ease or the unspoken desires and feelings of this family struggling to genuinely relate and connect. They have talked over and through each other for hours and ultimately go their separate ways at the end of the night: angry, disappointed, and silent. The Blakes are prototypical humans, managing aging parents, sickness, grief, and infidelity. Each character struggles to find the right words at the right time and is often left wanting. The play’s title is no coincidence. They are humans after all.

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