“Dearest Almighty: I don’t want anyone I care about to die again ever. Including, but not limited to me. So, please! Would you send us a doctor?”
In “Anatomy of Gray,” young June Muldoon prays for a doctor to come to her small town of Gray, Indiana, after her father’s heart gives out and he dies. The town has just about everything it needs, including a pastor who’s a “soul-fixer,” but no healer — no one to “fix other people.” So June writes the above entreaty, which is soon answered in the form of Galen Gray, a good-hearted doctor who mysteriously arrives by way of a hot-air balloon.
What also soon arrives? A mysterious disease — and fear.
Offstage we are living in an unprecedented drama. The pandemic of COVID-19 has virtually shut down normal life for an extended, undetermined period. Many folks are turning to art for solace, so it’s an ideal time to revisit “Anatomy of Gray” by Jim Leonard, which was CYT’s 2015 winter play.
Although the play deals with illness, grief, fear and uncertainty, it also holds uplifting messages about community, family, love, hope and healing. In the fictional story, as in real life, loss and panic are often accompanied by anger and blame. But as both the play and modern times have shown, trying situations can also be met with altruism, creativity and humor — hallmarks of CYT, which is in its 13th year of presenting high-quality and diverse productions.
“Anatomy of Gray” is set in the 1800s, but Jim Leonard wrote it in 2006 in part as an homage to a friend who had died of AIDS years earlier. CYT Director Nikki Dyke thoughtfully chooses each production, and this was no exception. When she first read the script, she said, she appreciated the story and the demands on the imagination that it requires. Plus, it aligned with CYT’s mission to cultivate an appreciation for the arts in the community through presenting a buffet of material.
CYT recently talked with two of the cast members from its 2015 production of “Anatomy of Gray” to see how the story can be applied not just to theater and its unique role in society, but also to life in the time of COVID-19.
Lexi Yauch, 19, played June in CYT’s production five years ago. She’s a sophomore musical theater major at Western Carolina University. Like other students around the world, she is finishing her school year online, living at home with her family in Clayton. Doing theater work through a computer is weird, she said, but she is adapting and staying connected with friends online.
The concept of home has taken on new significance for many folks in the past several weeks. Stable foundations for students and others have shifted, as people all over the world have been told to limit public activity. Homes have become makeshift offices and schools. In the play, it’s not clear where the doctor comes from, but at one point he says, “Home’s always been people, not places for me.”
Lexi found a home in theater with “Anatomy of Gray.” She had been in middle school productions, but playing June cemented her course onstage. At first, she was full of fear, she said, but everyone in CYT was so kind, welcoming and professional that by opening night, she knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be.
As in the play, the sense of community in CYT is powerful, Lexi noted. She said she was struck by the beauty of the “Gray” script, which tells a “poignant and timeless story.” She was 15 when she played June, the same age as the character, and connected with her innocence and curiosity about the world. June was an “open slate,” Lexi said, while the adult characters unabashedly displayed their biases and opinions.
At the beginning of the play, June describes herself in a way that perhaps many of us can relate to these days, as we navigate new relationships with space and people — not unlike how actors bring forth emotions to tell stories: “You know how much weather there is? Well that’s how many feelings she had. It’s like there was one sky outside her, and a sky just as huge on the inside.”
Nikki places great faith in her young actors and, as a stage director, strives to bring out their best. In picking “Gray,” she said she knew the students could handle the challenging material. “Acting is really about finding an emotional connection,” she said. “Teenagers understand anger, grief and prejudice. They’ve experienced it, and it’s not a stretch to ask them to tap into a past experience.”
Lexi’s castmate Katie Distefano, 22, played Tiny Wingfield, the spunky sister of the town pastor, in “Gray.” She’s a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, double-majoring in dramatic arts and linguistics. This fall, she will attend Duke Divinity School. Like Lexi, she is finishing her school year off campus. She is also staying in touch with friends, sharing the griefs they’re experiencing: the lost internships, study abroad semesters and a timely college graduation. Similar to the characters seeking information about the mysterious illness in "Gray," Katie has been trying to stay informed about the coronavirus but not get overwhelmed.
Early in the play, the newly arrived doctor tells townspeople about invisible germs that “carry diseases around like a puppy totes slippers.” But, sensing their rising fear, with his presumed expertise he encourages them not to panic. June, who had dreams of marrying the doctor, says in her adolescent frankness that “havin a bonafide healer in town was a new thing for people, and I don’t mind tellin you, we couldn’t wait to get sick.”
Gray takes up residence and begins to diagnose the characters — many of whom have never seen a doctor — with various common ailments: Insomnia. Migraines. Arthritis. June comically says, “People flocked to the healer like birds flock to crumbs! There was somethin wrong with you if you didn’t have somethin wrong with you.”
Humor itself is practically a character in “Gray,” and its role can’t be overstated. As Nikki said, “Humor is a gift and a coping mechanism.” For both actors and audiences, comedy can break up tension. “And frankly,” Nikki said, “it mimics our real-life stories. Most of us have experienced a time when we found ourselves laughing through our tears, or a tense moment that was shattered by something completely unexpected and ridiculous.” She noted the outpouring of humorous social media memes and song parodies that have been created during the coronavirus outbreak, which offer “a way to release some of the intensity of the moment, a way to cope, an excuse to laugh instead of cry.”
Humor involves not just linguistic comedy but also physical. In one scene in “Gray,” the pastor, who doubts the doctor’s authenticity because there is no mention of “germs” in the Bible, becomes a believer when the doctor helps him alleviate the agonizing pain of a kidney stone by helping him go upside-down into a headstand.
As the play progresses, the new, mysterious disease spreads. It is marked by skin sores, fever and a “terrible, deep, soul-wracking cough.” In the first serious case, the doctor orders the patient’s house to be placed under quarantine — a familiar word in the current pandemic. Until the end of the play, after several characters have died, the source of the illness remains a mystery, so they don’t know how to curtail it or protect themselves and each other.
Lexi and Katie both noted how the characters’ anxieties spread along with the disease. Rumors erupt, setting the town “boiling with fear,” the script says. The townspeople start to argue and even suggest that the doctor brought the illness with him.
At one point, Maggie, the tavern owner, says: “I can’t be marked — I haven’t done anything wrong.” The doctor assures her: “It’s a disease — it’s spread by germs, not by God!” Later, during choir practice, Maggie loses her focus. “I can’t do this. I just can’t go on like this as if nothin’s happened at all. I can’t concentrate, and I don’t know how any of you can.”
We’ve seen a similar understandable loss of focus and panicked behavior with the coronavirus, Lexi noted, as in the hoarding of necessities. Like in the play, Lexi said, “you don’t know what to be afraid of.” And some questions are the same in “Gray” as now, she said: Am I going to get it? Am I going to live? We think we know where it came from, Lexi continued, but there are so many unknowns — and you can’t see the virus, so you don’t know if it’s there. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, there it is, stay away from that.’ ”
Katie agreed, saying it was “kind of spooky” to reread “Gray” in the midst of the pandemic. Like Lexi, she voiced questions that many of us share: Where did the virus come from? Who has it? How is it spread? What about asymptomatic carriers? How close will it get before we know someone who is affected or has it? How do we make sense of it all?
Reading the play now, Lexi observed that just as June was experiencing her childhood through grief and tragedy and a mysterious disease, now “for a lot of kids, this is their childhood, what’s happening right now.” In this way, theater can be a mirror to help people look at themselves and society with a sense of intimacy but from a safe distance. Unlike watching a movie or TV show or reading a book, Lexi said, seeing live theater is charged and immediate: It happens right “before your eyes, feet away from you,” so viewers can connect with the story and empathize with the characters in a more visceral way. We can put ourselves in “another person’s shoes,” she said.
Nikki elaborated on theater’s “unique ability to reflect the now.” A play can make a story seem “urgent, relevant, familiar, and those feelings come from the fact that there is a living, breathing human being onstage telling a story, while a living, breathing human audience listens in the same space. They are sharing the same moment, the same air — and that’s a powerful connection, one that might even become more poignant after this current period of separation ends.”
As with Lexi, “Gray” also holds a special place in Katie’s heart. It is her favorite script “by far,” because of its lessons on life and grief. When she was in it, she said, she was struck by the characters’ reactions to fear — how they turn on each other and themselves. Now, though, Katie said, it’s important to be looking out for others, especially the most vulnerable among us.
Katie has been especially inspired by people who have had the “courage and audacity” to face the dangers, especially health-care professionals. The “sacrifices that so many people are making” are the “most beautiful part of all,” she noted. “We need to be embracing each other, looking out and caring for each other.”
Lexi echoed the need for concerted responses. It’s critical to love one another and communicate “as a global community,” she said. “No one wants this pandemic,” and the resolution will take a united effort. Noting the positive effects in nature from the lack of human footprints during isolation, she said, “The earth isn’t just us, it’s everything and everywhere.”
As it turns out, theater — especially for young people — is a great training ground for creating the kinds of solutions that Katie and Lexi describe. Lexi, a veteran of seven CYT shows including “Gray,” noted that through her CYT experience, she was exposed to a level of professionalism that prepared her well for theater at WCU. She knows it’s important to “come in memorized, hit the dates, show up on time” — a level of preparation and attention to detail that can be valuable in any endeavor.
Lexi said she learned other behaviors during her time with CYT from those who modeled them: how to speak with people, and how to be kind, welcoming and open-minded. She said she also gained a great deal of self-assurance and awareness of group dynamics, with more understanding of how she — and how we all — can affect situations.
Katie has loved theater all her life and was in elementary school productions before joining CYT, where she appeared in five productions. There’s something “so electric and exhilarating about being onstage,” she said. She echoed Lexi’s observation that CYT established a high bar that helped her cultivate a respect for the art of theater as both a hobby and a job, and it prepared her for a smooth transition into college stage work.
Katie noted several skills that she has learned from theater: teamwork, accountability, the ability to take feedback and constructive criticism, and the courage to take risks that don’t always pan out. Above all, she said, theater “just makes you a better person.”
Theater also highlights the power of storytelling, an often underestimated art form, Katie said. As she has worked to balance her intake of coronavirus-related information, she said she has been moved less by official government reports and more by personal stories of how the pandemic has affected people’s lives. “Stories are how we relate to each other,” she said. As in the world of a play, sharing a difficult story can make it more relatable and less scary.
Nikki echoed the importance of the healing power of theater. “We tell stories to share our experiences, to remember the past, to connect with others, to explore our fears, to try and make sense of the world. The stories we tell are a reflection of who we are, and in this moment “Anatomy of Gray” holds up a mirror and reveals a face that is familiar and recognizable.”
Carolina Youth Theatre is a nonprofit, and, like most arts organizations, is feeling the strain of the pandemic. Please help us continue to bring stories to life so that we can fulfill our mission to educate young people, showcase their talents and cultivate an appreciation for the arts.
Carolina Youth Theatre (CYT)
Carolina Youth Theatre is a community theater focused on providing theater arts education and performance opportunities to students across the Triangle.