For Peggy Willens, being a pack rat has paid off. Years after working as a hospice volunteer, she still hadn’t thrown away the notebook filled with notes from her training. When taking a class on playwriting, she was inspired when a friend mentioned one of her first scripts took place in a morgue. Willens immediately thought of death, which led to her remembering her years as a hospice volunteer. While riding the F train home from Hunter College that evening, she began writing Untying Love. A story of love and loss while one woman approaches death in hospice care, Willens’ play explores how the living family struggles to let go of the matriarch of their family.
Four years later, Untying Love Willens’ play is in performances at the TADA! Theatre, with Willens acting as the producer as well; she still has the notebook from her time at the hospice.
“I’ve been carrying it around from apartment to apartment. I could never quite throw it away,” she said said. “Every time I’ve unpacked my books and had this binder in my hand, I would leaf through it, and it was absolutely fascinating – about the stages of grief, different relationships…I know I saved it for something,” she added. “Now I know what it is.”
Willens’ intimate knowledge of and approach to hospice care gives Untying Love a unique tone, which director Emma Berry said drew her to the project.
“I was so intrigued by how Peggy used language to approach a very traditional play about a very untraditional topic,” Berry said.
To prepare for the production of Untying Love, Willens and Berry visited various hospices both in New York and in the United Kingdom. Berry said she read numerous textbooks about the subject of hospice care and talked frequently with a psychologist and social workers, friends and family who had experience with hospice care.
One aspect of the hospices Berry visited and strove to capture onstage was the physical atmosphere of the location.
“There was a sense in the air,” Berry said. “It’s really hot in hospices. It’s really quiet except for the professional staff. It’s really, really quiet, but with lots of noise. That’s what we’ve got to achieve – that sense of being held in space, held in time, while literally people are just dying. They just stop living and the families have to deal with it and move on or just stay in that place. If you don’t leave, it will follow you.”
The different ways men and women process grief is addressed in Untying Love, but Willens said her script presents it in a sort of role reversal, saying, “The gender relationship are quite interesting.”
Describing a scene that takes place around a dining table, Willens said, “There are extraordinarily long and uncomfortable pauses, every one of which is broken by one of the women. Who fills in the pauses? It’s always the woman. That’s what we’re taught to do – to smooth over the rough spots and try to make things easier for people.”
Despite the questions Untying Love might inspire, Willens said the gender-specific aspects of the play were not something she intended to focus while writing the script.
“I didn’t want to write a play where the women were the help meets,” she said. “But it turned out that way where the women were helpful. I didn’t want to do that they are here to serve the men. Each of them are going through their own loss and grieving.”
The roles of men and women in cultural traditions were also a topic of interest to Berry, who observed differences in other countries while traveling abroad. She related some of these experiences to the character of Isabel, who Berry said struggles to navigate herself as a young woman who is also a daughter and granddaughter, but who transforms into a matriarch at a young age.
“I was looking at various differences of matriarchs around the world and how to impress on a young actress the difference between maturity and matriarchy, the female lead in a different, tribal way,” Berry said. “The difference between being supportive as a woman because that’s what’s expected of you in society and in the bigger picture because that’s your destiny.”
While society may attempt to define what men and women’s destinies are, Untying Love questions that fate, especially in the roles of the male lead character and the character of Cheryl, who Berry describes as experiencing a role reversal.
“Cheryl expresses her pain physically and the guys express their pain through art,” Berry said. “…obviously female actors in this country are pressured into being Barbie Dolly – perfectly thin, perfectly pretty, perfectly nice. Cheryl is everything except that. She’s not nice, she takes no prisoners, she’ll give as good as she gets.”
The male lead in Untying Love is an artist and musician, and part of his struggle comes from being unable to express himself through his artwork. Berry elaborated on the consequences of that struggle, as well as the Western approach to coping with grief.
“When you come to anything around grief, there is an expectation that you are sad and you get over it. We want everything neat and packaged and easy,” she said. “You can’t do that with grief. It’s uncontrollable, and I think uncontrollable emotion is scary to North Americans, Western culture…If a society is completely obsessed by youth and beauty, often it’s the precursor to the downfall of that society. Youth and beauty and the pursuit of happiness is not just real.”
Another aspect of grief that Untying Love focuses on is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Nancy Hess, who plays a hospice worker, elaborated on that difference and credited much of her knowledge to Willens’ experience as a hospice worker and Berry’s time as a patient advocate for women.
“I had great first-hand accounts in terms of what your body language is and what would be appropriate to touch,” she said. “Sort of the background of the training that goes into being a volunteer. Being empathetic, but not sympathetic.You are not part of the family. You are there to be with the family and be with the patient. There is a line not to be crossed. It’s not about you. You are there to give options, but not to give advice.”
Hess emphasized the importance of a hospice volunteer remembering the difference between sympathy and empathy and the best way to help the family of a patient.
“As the patient volunteer, you are not experiencing the grief,” she said. “You are helping the patient or the family get to the grief. You as the volunteer are not experiencing the grief. That is not your family…It’s active listening.”
Untying Love has been compared to Wit, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play about a woman dying of ovarian cancer. Willens shared her response to Wit, saying, “I was sobbing in my seat at the end at the sheer beauty and the elegance of it. In my play, it’s complimentary but quite contrasting. Just as Wit talks about the difference between a comma and semicolon, in my play there’s a metaphor to that transition moment. That’s what the family’s trying to grapple with – how to get through it.”
Numerous audience members have spoken of how moving Untying Love is and the impact watching the play had on them. While the subject of death is a painful one, Hess said, it can also be extremely cathartic.
“The audience is in essence metaphorically speaking, feeling the heartbeat of the play,” Hess said. “I believe that’s happening definitely during our play. There’s a great deal of humanity in it; there’s a great deal of humanity in the cast. It really is amazing. It has been dealt with with such love and respect and generosity.”
Untying Love will be performed through November 4 at the TADA! Theater. Click here for a performance schedule and tickets.