When Skies Are Gray
writer-actor-director Ashley Steed
and Melissa R. Randel
When Skies are Gray . . . Review by Bill Rayden . . . Stage Raw . . . "in a breathtaking performance by Melissa R. Randel . . .
"To that end, Randel delivers a performance of excruciating verisimilitude and complexity . . . "
"If it’s not an easy performance to witness, neither is it frivolous. There’s an astonishing if understandable degree of anger in so realistically and painstakingly portraying the manifold indignities of dying an agonizing death in America’s medical-industrial complex."
“ "Do not touch the patient,” the Head Nurse (a disquieting Christina Bryan) coldly deadpans as the audience members queue up in a hallway for the sanitizer lotion and disposable surgical mask that are mandatory before entering the Kansas Room studio theater at Thymele Arts. Though it is unclear (and never explained) what is ailing the patient occupying the barely furnished sickroom, the sense of morbid apprehension triggered by the sterile clinical realism will be unmistakable even to those who have never experienced first-hand the fatal wasting illness of a loved one.
But it is what comes next in When Skies Are Gray, writer-actor-director Ashley Steed’s powerful, almost unbearably unwavering blow-by-blow recounting of the final weeks in the life of her terminally ill mother, Diane Steed (in a breathtaking performance by Melissa R. Randel) that most transcends the countless commercial treatments of the same subject. Rather than heeding the dramatic delicacies that typically might be expected of a play that advertises itself as an “experiential piece about death,” Steed begins her mother’s real-life disease narrative at the last possible moment — and long past the point where Hollywood would have delicately averted the movie audiences’ gaze — when chronic illness has already taken full possession of the disease-racked woman and distorted her humanity almost beyond recognition.
Were it not heightened by the underscoring of composer Dave McKeever, whose increasingly synthesized and machine-like keyboard score parallels the inexorable decline, the initial 60 minutes of the 70-minute, audience-interactive production might be mistaken for a hybrid form of live cinéma vérité. The first “act” is structured around Steed’s own daily visits, which feature tender mother-daughter sing-alongs of favorite songs from their shared past, and is punctuated by the exchange of departing endearments (“Who loves mom-mom?”). Instead of spoken dialogue, the bulk of the voices heard come courtesy of archived voicemail recordings of actual hospice workers and caregivers. Steed also introduces the rhythms and routines of hospice by conscripting audience members to assist with the administering of medications and the cumbersome process of moving the patient in and out her wheelchair.
But once the mundane facts are established, Steed unexpectedly steps back to allow the wrenching spectacle of death to take center stage. To that end, Randel delivers a performance of excruciating verisimilitude and complexity as she embodies a repertoire of wheezing and gasping that progresses to convulsive, DTs-like shrieking and writhing and, in the play’s heartrending and oddly heroic emotional climax, a prolonged panic attack in which the mortally weakened woman painfully claws her way out of bed and across the stage floor in a desperate if inchoate attempt to cling onto life.
If it’s not an easy performance to witness, neither is it frivolous. There’s an astonishing if understandable degree of anger in so realistically and painstakingly portraying the manifold indignities of dying an agonizing death in America’s medical-industrial complex. And though Steed tempers it with the deeply personal lyricism of a silent dance-movement duet postscript that recapitulates the fraught nature of all mother-daughter relationships, it is the righteous outrage of When Skies Are Gray that ultimately speaks the most eloquently to Steed’s loss.