“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.
CYT’s performances of “Our Town” are fast approaching. As with all of our shows, we’ll have spent far less time presenting it than preparing for it — such is the bittersweetness of theater, and of much of life. But the story of putting on a play — with a beginning (auditions), middle (rehearsals) and end (performances) — also holds the potential for magic. An “old” play can be new every time it comes to life.
As a play has its own life cycle, so too does “Our Town” trace the spectrum of human life. Closer to home, Carolina Youth Theatre's upcoming production of Thornton Wilder’s story also reflects the progression of time in Clayton. As we’ve previously noted, CYT staged this iconic play in 2011, and Clayton High School did so in 1969.
CYT director Nikki Dyke brought it back for many reasons. It’s one of her favorite plays, and she wanted students to experience it as actors and not just from a textual or classroom perspective. Also, she said, it coincides with Clayton’s year-long celebration of its 150th anniversary, and as a community group she wanted to offer a meaningful contribution.
Back in 1969, Bill Johnson was co-director of the show presented by the junior and senior classes at Clayton High School, during the town’s centennial celebrations. He came to CHS as an English teacher in 1969, when he was in graduate school at N.C. State University. He taught at CHS until 1971. Bill, who is from Smithfield, said that “Clayton was the greatest place in the world. Those were two of the most incredible years of my life.”
He said that he and his co-director, Alice (Alite) Ferrell, who passed away in 2009, had a vision of using the CHS auditorium for its intended purpose. Until then it had been used mostly for meetings. He had seen “Our Town,” and he and Alite thought it would be a good tie-in with the town’s 100th anniversary.
The show was more successful than anyone predicted. “We were overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to participate, and the community was so helpful in volunteering time and skills, like carpentry,” he said. “We didn’t have to beg for anything. We’d say we needed something, and the response was “ ‘When?’ ” So many people auditioned, he said, that “the hardest thing in my life was to choose roles. We had more townspeople than we probably should have."
Pat Forbes Poe, who played the role of Emily Webb, also remembers Clayton’s deep sense of community spirit. She and her family moved to the area from Asheville when she was in sixth grade. “Growing up in that small community was so profound,” she said, with opportunities to form deep relationships, some of which endure to this day.
Those themes are echoed in “Our Town.” CYT director Nikki Dyke has directed the show three times in 16 years, each time with teenagers. Over time, she said, it has come to resonate with her even more deeply. She had a vague notion of its depths when she acted in it at age 17, “but there is no doubt that in revisiting it as an adult the play takes on deeper significance. As I get older and experience more of life, the play packs a bigger punch.” It seems even more important now to share the story, she said, “to remind folks of a simpler time and encourage them to prioritize the things that matter most.”
Bill and Pat wholeheartedly embraced the challenges of their production five decades ago. Because “Our Town” essentially marked the birth of the theater program at CHS, the school had scant if any props and no stage lighting. Bill said the crew borrowed a spotlight from Raleigh Little Theatre and used the proceeds from the three sold-out shows to buy one for CHS. The only complaint he heard was that three shows had not been enough.
Bill also said that he and Alite took great pains to avoid letting the play have “too much sugar for a nickel,” meaning not allowing it to be overly sentimental. From a more technical point of view, the directors helped the actors learn how to pantomime. “I don’t know how many times I bought string beans,” Bill said, so that the students could practice on the real things to be able to convincingly fake snipping them and putting them into bowls.
Interactions with imaginary chickens were also a challenge, even though many of the students were from farms. Bill said he encouraged the actors to practice hanging around live ones to notice how they behave — “it’s like herding cats,” he said.
Bill is especially proud of figuring out how to simulate rain on umbrellas. He’d heard that applying glycerin on a black umbrella would do the trick, so he bought some glycerin from Beddingfield drugstore. The effect was particularly brilliant under the stage lighting, he said. “People talked for years about how realistic it was, asking, ‘How’d you do that?’ ”
Because the staging for “Our Town” is so spartan, Nikki said, it relies on the concept that “less is more.” With limited props and set pieces, good acting and storytelling really have to carry the show. “If these elements are weak, there isn’t anything else to distract the audience,” she said. “You are very exposed, so the pressure is high to deliver a strong performance.”
Pat, who lives in Raleigh, said she did her best to illuminate Emily. She doesn’t remember auditioning but was “on top of the world to get the part.” She didn’t have a background in theater and had never seen “Our Town,” or any play. Her cultural touchstones at the time were the TV programs “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Peyton Place,” and she had seen only a few movies, “The Ten Commandments” and “Parent Trap.”
“ ‘Our Town’ ” introduced me to another world,” she said. “It was all new, all of it.” She got personal lessons from Alite on how to become Emily, going over lines and getting tips on delivery. It was challenging to portray a woman in stages of life that Pat had not experienced, but “I threw myself into that role,” she said.
Indeed, as Nikki said, coaching young people to play adult roles involves getting them to connect with something familiar. For example, they may not know what it’s like to be married, but they’ve probably dated or observed their parents’ and grandparents’ relationships, or watched how partnerships are portrayed in books, film or on TV.
“It’s been my experience that students will surprise you,” she said. “Their capacity for depth and understanding is greater than most adults realize. Generally speaking, my theater students are in tune, sensitive and self-aware. They work hard to get it right.”
Like many fans of the play, Bill appreciates its themes and said his student actors did, too. By the final show, the cast “finally realized that Wilder was trying to tell us that we don’t know and never will” know how our lives will play out. During the production, he said, the students began to realize that they were not alone in the world, and that there were people around them with similar interests. This built a sense of “commonality that tied us all together.”
Pat agreed about the show’s resonance. “That play just lives,” she said.
It’s that sense of shared humanity that helps “Our Town” endure. In some ways, it’s a very American play, set in a fictional New Hampshire town in the early 1900s. But although life is different in 2020, Nikki said, as in the “daily life” sketch of Act I, “people are people, and there are some things that will always remain the same. People wake up, eat breakfast, take care of the kids, go to work, go to school and have certain routines. The difference is that now those routines may involve checking email and hitting a Starbucks.” Many of us will fall in love and marry, as Act 2 outlines, and we’ll all have to deal with losing someone we love, as shown in the concluding Act 3.
Neither Bill nor Pat spent much time on a stage after their “Our Town” experience, but both still have a fondness for theater. Bill put his graduate degree in English to work, spending a decade at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and teaching linguistics in Florence, Italy, and English for nearly 20 years at Johnston Community College. Even though he didn’t pursue a career in theater, Bill appreciates that it can give young people “a lot of independence, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and a feeling that they can do anything they want to.”
Pat thought she was going to major in drama in college but ended up having a career in computer programming at a time when women were scarce in that field. She later returned to graduate school at Meredith College and started her own interior design business.
Bill’s and Pat’s experiences from half a century ago dovetail with CYT’s 2020 “Our Town” in many ways, but the upcoming production will be a fresh telling, with its own innovations. The stage manager, typically a male role, is being played by a young woman, for example.
But in the end, Nikki said, the play “reminds us that the simple, mundane parts of life are important, that little things bring joy and that we should make the most of the time we are given by spending it with the people we love. It is in the everyday moments that we encounter people, build relationships and truly live. No one wants to look back on life and find out that they missed it, and that message, regardless of whether it’s 1900, 1969, or 2020, will always ring true.”
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.