Dearly Departed opened last night with the first of its six scheduled performances. Was it flawless? No. A couch made an unexpected appearance in the middle of Act I, there were some minor lighting and sound kerfuffles, and at least one key prop didn’t make it onstage for its starring role. But most of it were things that an audience unfamiliar with the production would\not have picked up on (except the couch – no hiding that one…) and the comments I heard from the audience were highly complimentary, declaring the show a success given the limitations of budget, equipment, and time that plague any community theater production. I was very proud of my actors. It was the first time I was able to simply sit there and watch the show without picking apart the myriad details that my minds eye tells me would make it better. I had no notes to take, no technical snafus to try and solve, no trying to figure out how to coach an actor to the next level through positive reinforcement. Tommy once said that his goal was to go to local theater and see everyone he knew on stage and still see no one he knew on stage. I think my cast achieved that. As I just let the rhythms and language of the misadventures of the Turpin family envelop me, I was seeing those characters, not the actors I’ve been working with so diligently.
Much of Dearly Departed is relatively short blackout scenes, usually of two or three people. I’ve seen other productions of the piece where two or three people talking at a kitchen table quickly gets boring. I was never bored. My cast has learned to work together as an ensemble and support each other and create layers and nuances that keep the ball rolling. My favorite scene in the play is just two brothers sitting on the porch steps with pint bottles of bourbon. It took me all of about fifteen minutes to stage it – what can you do with sitting on the porch steps? But, as it was performed last night, there was a current of humanity and universal concerns of love, death, and family that came through to me in ways it never had in rehearsal when I was so caught up in the details. So, if you happen to be in Birmingham next weekend, honor those eleven people on stage (and the other three behind the scenes) and go see what they’ve created. I’m not sure I had that much to do with it.
Now that the show is open (my job ended when the lights went down last night – I can turn up for performances but I’m certainly not needed), I have to start turning my attention to the various piles of things that have fetched up on the dining room table these last few weeks, dropped there to be dealt with ‘once the show is open’. I have a talk to give on The Accidental Plague Diaries and how it relates to trends in senior care in Mid March, a pulpit message about my writing in early April, a trip to Seattle to check up on the paterfamilias, a symphonic choral work to learn, and a couple of legal cases to delve into. Should keep me off the streets the next few weeks.
There’s been almost no reportage on Covid over the last few weeks. At least there’s been nothing that’s penetrated my little theatrical world bubble. So I poked around a bit this afternoon through my usual sources. We’re still losing about 2500-3000 people a week and there’s still 30,000 people in the hospital nationwide (with about 3500 in intensive care. It remains way down from the previous peaks but it’s still an unfathomable number of people in the aggregate. As a comparison, it’s roughly three times the number of women who die of breast cancer weekly and about the same as the number of Americans who die of stroke. One of the programs under the federal pandemic response legislation was one that has subsidized data collection from all of the individual health departments at state and local level and allowed us to see the total numbers in something approximating real time. As of May 11th, when the emergency phase of the pandemic officially comes to an end, that funding ends as well. The numbers will again come piecemeal and poorer states are likely not to report much at all. We’ll also lose things like wastewater surveillance which has been very useful in determining where Covid is actively spreading even when the official numbers have been somewhat murky.
Healthcare is pouring money and resources into community based care programs to try and decentralize medical care away from the hospital and back to the home and the community for things that do not require hospital care. This is laudatory but the ravaged landscape of healthcare post Covid means that we simply don’t have the man power to enact all of the programs and ideas that the ‘Make It So’ administrators sitting in corporate offices are churning out. Somewhere around 10-12% of the healthcare work force quit or retired during the acute phase of the pandemic and there’s a couple of other percentage points headed towards the exits as their lives have become more and more intolerable as they have to pick up the slack for their missing colleagues. It’s going to take a generation to replace those numbers and the expertise that was lost as most of the departed were older and seasoned professionals. We sit around our conference table in our clinic and house call program offices trying desperately to figure out how to find more qualified providers and how to fairly divvy the workload among those we do have. And try not to roll our eyes too much when someone in central administration wants to replace our house call vehicles with an all electric fleet. (Bureaucrats haven’t quite figured out that there are no charging stations in rural Alabama and that the lightweight vehicles they are considering will never make it to the mobile home in the holler where you take the county road, turn off on the gravel road, head down the dirt road and then descend the creek bed.) As one of the few physicians around who understands the world of community medicine and the world of long term care medicine and all of the weird interplays between them, I’m constantly putting out fires that I think simply require a little common sense. At least I have job security. There simply aren’t younger ones coming up beneath me with the same skill set.
Going to eat the other half of my Hawaiian pizza (pineapple does belong on pizza and I will die on this hill) and make my way out to tonight’s performance of Dearly Departed to provide moral support.