Image Description: yellow promotional poster for Wednesday, Death Meditation.
“It doesn’t stop, until it really stops.”
This is the only line I remember from Wednesday, Death Meditation, which is odd, as it didn’t seem significant at the time.
The new play, written and directed by Shaw Worth and premiering Week 4 at the Burton Taylor Studio, seems like it should be more quotable. It’s the story of a yoga instructor, Sandra, struggling to come to terms with her husband’s advanced throat cancer. As you might expect, the script is full of philosophical nuggets, any of which would make a nice epigraph for someone’s dissertation. The problem is, I’ve forgotten them. Except one: “It doesn’t stop, until it really stops.”
I suppose there’s a reason why, of all lines, I’ve remembered this one (besides it being in iambic pentameter). Wednesday, Death Meditation is about the future day when it will, in fact, really stop; when you’ll roll up your yoga mat and decamp to your afterlife of choice.
The play proceeds in two parts. In the first part, we watch as Sandra (Rosie Owen) leads her yoga students through an exercise designed to bring them face-to-face with their inevitable demise. In the second part, Sandra argues with her husband, Doug (Michael Yates), who is also a meditation instructor. He loves the sound of his own voice, which is a shame, since his laryngotomy is tomorrow. Even if he survives the cancer, he’ll never speak again.
And so forth. Sandra becomes increasingly frantic to discipline her body and mind, trying not to think about the day when the two will permanently part ways.
Let’s be real: if this is a play about death, it is equally a play about bodies. Meditation is grounded in awareness of your flesh, even the areas that you often ignore, like the tops of your feet. So it’s appropriate that Worth showcases the bodies onstage. The first half of the show, in Sandra’s yoga studio, is visually unforgettable. Picture a miniature diorama, like one you might have assembled as a child, occupied by tiny rubber figurines, each brightly colored and twisted into some crazy inhuman pose—and you’ve got a good idea of what the stage looked like. Even as Sandra’s students are discussing their future deaths, we’re forced to look at their bodies, vigorously alive. It’s an effective choice.
The second half of the show, when we leave the yoga studio for Doug and Sandra’s bedroom, isn’t as effective. This is partly because Doug is no fun to be around. This is no failure on the part of actor Yates, who does an admirable job embodying a man painted cynical by illness; rather, it’s because Doug is undeniably a sociopath. I don’t think audiences have ever felt less sympathy for a cancer patient. It’s also a difficult chunk of text to stage. With Doug curled up in bed, the only movement we get is Sandra shuddering and stalking around the room, which is initially kind of amazing but soon loses its spark.
The BT Studio is the perfect space for this production. Of course, the seating arrangement is tough for shorter folks—it’s hard to see the action taking place on the floor—but the BT compensates by positioning the audience so close to the actors you can see their muscles jitter.
Set designer Dowon Jung gives us just enough apparatus onstage to suggest each scene’s setting. The sound design is evocative—the audience gets a nice surprise from a couple spoken-word clips—but it’s not quite clean, with abrupt cut-offs that are distracting.
Luke Drago’s lighting design deserves its own paragraph. Despite the technically limited space, Drago has executed one of the best lighting jobs I’ve seen. The cues are well-timed, using innovative colors and angles. The light aligns with the mood of each moment so neatly that the actors seem to wear it like skin.
Owen, as Sandra, is quick and playful, at least when she’s not dealing with her existential crisis. It’s fun to see her silence her students with one raised eyebrow. Among those students, Lauren (Gillian Konko) is brimming with moxie, at one point making the audience gasp with a headstand. Aaron (Alex Bridges) gives a fine performance as everyone’s least favorite yoga friend, while Cam (Vicky Stone) is smart and subtle. I have to mention Eva Stuart as Katie, whose low-level confusion about everything is the funniest part of the show. Finally, there’s Yates as Doug, Sandra’s husband; I’ll stick to my guns and say he is a remarkably convincing sociopath. It’s clear the ensemble is comfortable together.
And yet this show sits uncomfortably with its viewers. Literally. I could feel other audience members shifting in their seats. How do you react to a play that worships bodies, then reminds you that your body will crumple, get ugly, and die? Wednesday, Death Meditation is clearly the product of a pandemic, when we no longer feel safe moving our bodies through the world. We may be rolling into an era of widespread chronic disease. A play about degeneration and death is, if anything, timely.
As it is, Wednesday, Death Meditation has its problems. This play has potential to be an intriguing satire of the mindfulness subculture. Instead, it takes itself a tad too seriously, and the audience is smothered with a philosophy lecture. We’d benefit from a SparkNotes version.
Yet the ideas at the core of the play are important ones, the staging is good, and the cast—well, they’re incandescent. In a post-COVID world, where worry about death has become as public as death itself, theatremakers should be holding this worry to the light. Wednesday, Death Meditation does so, and even though Sandra’s journey is a painful one, it deserves recognition. Because the thing is—that constant worry about death? It doesn’t stop, your whole life through. It doesn’t stop until it really stops.