This is Not a Review: Mother Teresa Is Dead (Bleeding Hearts Collective/Pacific Theatre, March 2013)

I didn’t do it on purpose, but seeing this show on International Women’s Day turned out to be appropriate in so many ways.  Some of my principal reactions could be summed up thusly:

  • For goodness’ sake, [male characters], please stop telling [pivotal female character] what to do. Why should you know better than her what’s best *for* her?
  • We – society*, I mean – ask such a lot of girls and women, and we’re so quick to judge them when they fall short. It’s exhausting, to say the least. *I can only speak for the one I live in, but I’m pretty sure the same is true elsewhere too.
  • Motherhood, man. What a terrifying proposition.

This was a beautiful script; I’d actually like to track it down and read it, because there were so many lines that made the writer part of me go oh wow I want to see that on the page, with time to stop and think about it.  It was beautifully performed, too, by four fine actors who made me believe in and sympathize with all of the characters, by the end. In the transition from the climactic reveal into the last scene, I remember thinking: not only do I not know how this is going to end, I don’t even know how I *want* it to end. I couldn’t figure out in my own mind what the best or “right” outcome might be. [Spoilers after the jump…]

Then the lights came up on the next scene and there was Jane (the main female character), in new clothes, looking more together than we had yet seen her, standing in the garden with an iPhone…and then ‘Vas entered, also dressed differently…and for a second I thought this is a flash forward, she decided to stay with him and now it’s some time later– and I was taken aback by my own visceral reaction of NO, that’s wrong, she *can’t*. I couldn’t have said whether I meant it was morally wrong, narratively wrong, or personally wrong for the character as we had come to know her by then – I think it was probably a tangled up mixture of all three.  I was just very struck by how strongly I felt, when I had just been thinking that I wasn’t sure how the play would – or should – end.

It turned out not to be a flash forward, and indeed at that moment she had decided to return home with her husband, so the outcome was actually the opposite of what I first thought. I felt pretty ambiguous about that too, given how far apart in understanding she and her husband clearly still were, but it sat better with me than the alternative…I think because at least she articulated it as her decision, and gave good reasons for why she felt it was the right thing to do. I wasn’t at all sure it wouldn’t crush her, though, and totally understood her last impulse to flight, cut off by the reappearance of the men at the very end. I was glad the play ended on a note of hope, or at least of connection – but we still didn’t know what would happen next to any of the characters. It seemed very real, that there were no obvious answers for any of them – or for the show’s central questions, as I read them: what does it mean to live a truly unselfish, compassionate life? How do we make sense of the fact that some folks are steeped in privilege more or less as an accident of birth? And what’s the right way to reach out and help someone – so as to actually help them and not undermine them in the process?

I remember talking about this with a close friend, years ago when we were just coming out of university and trying to sort out what we were doing with our lives. My friend’s degree was in urban planning (with a special focus on issues around homelessness and social housing), but she also had a longstanding dream of going to journalism school and becoming a sports writer. However, she was something of Jane’s mold in that she felt a real burden of responsibility; she thought that for someone like her – someone lucky enough to have options – it might be wrong and selfish NOT to pursue a career path that was designed to make a difference, to effect social change. She wasn’t sure she could justify spending her life writing and talking about baseball, when there were other things she could do that might help people in concrete, tangible ways. I remember saying that I thought there was value in doing the thing that makes you happy and doing it well – that just putting that out into the world was worthwhile, because truly happy, fulfilled people are good for the people around them, and the ripple effect of that shouldn’t be underestimated.

I still believe that, but I also wonder uncomfortably whether it’s not the easy way out, whether it’s enough. Should I be more outward-looking, reach out beyond my local community of friends and family and colleagues, think more about the rest of the world and the long term, try in some way to balance out the incredible privilege I have by doing something concrete to help those less fortunate?

These days, this line of thought often leads me to the late, beloved Cheryl Hutcherson, who was in some ways the person I want to grow up to be, when it comes to personal generosity. She gave so much of herself – in time and talent and sheer sunshine-y enthusiasm – in support of the people and the community and the art that she loved. She would probably have been the last person to say that any of that was world-changing on a big picture scale…but I think again about the potential ripple effects of all that love, especially mixed in as it was with all the hundreds of hours she put in on more tangible, ordinary things like helping in the office, doing front-of-house, volunteering as a publicist, promoting the heck out of countless shows on Facebook, and so on and on. Maybe it’s okay to start small, start local. Maybe the important thing is just to choose carefully where and how to reach out. And to make sure that you are always reaching out, in some way.

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