Bobby (Barry Wiggins) and Lee (Iona Morris) in Holding On - Letting Go.
By Ed Rampell
Plenty of plays die, but few focus on dying. In our culture, death is the ultimate taboo, on and offstage. But Bryan Harnetiaux is not afraid. Holding On – Letting Go is the third in his end-of-life cycle of plays -- along with Vesta and Dusk. In Holding On – Letting Go the playwright not only explores the death process, which is a universal fixture of the human condition, but also in particular how it affects those involved in a realm where peak physical condition and health are especially important: Athletics.
Bobby (the towering Barry Wiggins) and his wife, Lee (the formidable Iona Morris), are former athletes now in their fifties. Past their sporting prime, both have become NCAA basketball coaches, but as the play opens, Bobby has already been struck by cancer and walks with the help of a cane.
Produced and performed at the Fremont Center Theatre in South Pasadena, the play follows the couple as they grapple with the disease that not only consumes and ravages Bobby, but threatens to do the same to their longtime union. Wiggins does a convincing job playing a man as he physically declines and must come to grips with fatal illness, death and with a wife who must be convinced her suffering husband is not “a quitter.”
Morris -- who directed, under extremely tough circumstances, Still Standing, the musical I wrote the book for and which was produced in Switzerland -- brings the steely determination I remember to bear on her character. Imbued with the spirit of the competitive world of sports, Lee is determined to win and beat the Big C. She views Bobby’s attitude as “quitting”; to him, it’s simply “realism.” For Lee, losing is simply not an option, and when conventional Western medicine fails, she insists on playing with another team via alternative healing, and embarks on a mission impossible.
Morris delivers a nuanced, bravura performance. Underneath the iron-willed persona beats a vulnerable heart, terrified at the finality of separation from her lifelong mate. Having finally met her match – the Grim Reaper -- the fearless competitor turns from defiance to denial. I’m sure Morris' father, actor Greg Morris, would be proud of his daughter’s sterling performance, which, Iona says, was crafted in part by watching hours of NCAA championship games.
In addition to Morris and Wiggens, the ensemble is deftly directed by James Reynolds. The rest of this two act drama’s cast is also up to par. As May, Amentha Dymally is poignant as Bobby’s doting mom, who comes to terms not only with her son’s demise, but with the daughter-in-law she has underestimated. As the devoted nurse Virginia, whom we’d all wish to have care for our loved ones in moments of need, Jill Remez (The Green Hornet, Lorca) excels. In addition to confronting the declining Bobby’s plague, she has to deal with the possessiveness, if not outright jealousy, of Lee, who, after years of marriage, is forced to allow another female tend to her husband’s bodily needs.
As the social worker Gabe and pastor Roger, Lamar Hughes and the appropriately named Christian Malmin round out the sympathetically drawn cast members who form Bobby’s support squad as he heads for that final round with the great scorekeeper in the sky.
Interestingly, the Fremont Center Theatre is actually a former mortuary, and I had reservations about seeing a play that revolved around the topic of death. But instead of feeling morbid, Harnetiaux’s drama is actually an enlightening, realistic look at the one fact of life none of us will ever escape, as well as at home and hospice care. The audience in the sold-out house applauded after each scene and gave a standing ovation at the end of the play, which on the night I attended was followed by a discussion with the cast and Vitas representatives. I ended up being glad I experienced this enlightening piece of live theatre, which you have a last chance to see before it fades to black next weekend.
Holding On – Letting Go runs through June 3 at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030. For reservations and information: (866)811-4111; www.fremontcentretheatre.com.