Exploring the outer edges of human compassion

Founder of charity takes up dark theme in her new play

Theater

July 11, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

One day about 15 years ago, Kathy Levin Shapiro found herself sitting at the bedside of a comatose friend. He was a cerebral palsy patient named Eugene whom she'd met through her work as founder of the charitable organization Magic Me.

"It was in that room that I began to ask the questions that I didn't even think of asking while he was sentient," she says. "One of the questions was, 'What was he thinking about our friendship?' And as soon as I asked that, I knew I had to look at this. Because I had no idea. I just assumed that the kindness I was sharing was a good thing. And it unraveled a whole bunch of ideas about the assumptions we make in charity."

Shapiro decided to examine those assumptions in a play. Titled Eugene's Home, it will make its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., on Aug. 5. Rehearsals begin there tomorrow.

Choosing a play as the forum in which to explore her ideas came naturally to this 47-year-old Baltimore native. Indeed, Eugene's Home can be seen as the ideal synthesis of the two major threads in her life -- Magic Me and theater.

She attempted this synthesis once before; in the late 1980s, she created the libretto for a musical about Magic Me, for which she persuaded an A-list of Broadway composers to contribute songs. Her theatrical credits also include co-producing a number of Broadway shows, including the 1990 Tony Award-winning revival of Gypsy, and co-writing a play, Hopping to Byzantium, with Brian Clark, best known for Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Eugene's Home, however, is the first time Shapiro has attempted to write for the theater on her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, in at least one respect, it is reminiscent of her two collaborative efforts. Like Hopping to Byzantium (which was produced in Germany and Australia) and Magic Me, The Musical (which never made it past an initial workshop), Eugene's Home takes place in a nursing home.

The action focuses on a young woman named Talie, who runs Magic Me, a program that brings children to visit nursing homes, and Eugene, a CPA with a near-genius IQ and a souped-up wheelchair whose bells and whistles he designed and installed himself. In the play, the relationship between Talie and Eugene begins tentatively, then blossoms into friendship and more.

Play, life are different

Seated in the sun-drenched living room of the spacious Pikesville home she shares with her husband and two young sons, Shapiro acknowledges certain similarities between fact and fiction, particularly between herself and the character of Talie: "I wanted to write the play to explore something for myself, so I made her pretty close, but I changed a bunch of events and factual details in it for the purpose of the play."

At the same time, she says, "It's not a play about me and this person, Eugene. It was catalyzed by that. There's a real difference for me."

For one thing, this intense woman -- whose serious demeanor occasionally gives way to equally intense laughter -- points out that her relationship with Eugene did not include the level of intimacy that is portrayed on stage. For another, she deliberately made Eugene's character more manipulative. Talie gives him a computer, for instance, then finds out he's sold it behind her back. Scenes like this gave her a chance to write about what she calls "the underside of charity."

This darker theme is among the play's most distinctive characteristics, according to dramaturg and playwright James Magruder, who has been working with Shapiro on Eugene's Home for two and a half years. "The theme is very powerful. The limits of compassion is one that people don't write about," says Magruder, who is associate dramaturg at Center Stage and is serving as dramaturg on the Berkshire production.

"Kathy's take on this as Talie and Eugene go through their journey is a much more truthful examination of what we can do for others who are in terrible situations, and sometimes we can use people to fulfill needs we didn't know we had -- to the good and to the bad."

Much of the work that Magruder and Shapiro have done has involved homing in on the relationship between the main characters. That relationship was what first attracted director Scott Schwartz, to whom Shapiro sent the script more than four years ago.

Describing the play as "an incredibly original love story," Schwartz, who is directing the production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, explains, "The play is about two people who are trapped by their own disabilities, and through this relationship they are forced to confront that.

"Obviously, Eugene, who has cerebral palsy, has a physical disability, but that has also impacted very deeply his emotional life and his ability to honestly relate to other people. But Talie is also disabled in a more metaphorical sense because she is unable to truly express and understand her own emotions."

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