Memorial Play

About an hour before our Opening Night I found out that my grandfather had passed away. It’s a good thing we were doing a play about death… Pop was my Dad’s Dad, and he and my stepmom, Pam, got the call from my grandfather’s nursing home in Louisville, Ky while they were driving up from Baltimore to Philly to see the show. In the telling of the telling of this story, my Dad thought for a moment that they could hide this sad news from me on such an important night, but I was standing outside the theater and as they stood waiting for the light to change half a block away on the other side of 17th, I could tell that something was very wrong.

They stayed and had dinner with the family friends that had also come up for the big night, and then with my encouragement drove home to get some rest and make plans to fly to Louisville the next day.

We were doing a play about death after all. I thought it would be too hard for them to watch. It was a pretty tough night for me as well.

Here’s what’s pretty amazing. Just four days earlier Pop and Dad and my brother Alex came and visited me. It was the first time my 97 year old grandfather had ever been to Philly. Which blew my mind. See, my Dad hosts this epic Kentucky Derby party every year. So epic, that my grandfather flies to Baltimore FROM Louisville to attend. And this year was no different. On my end, it would be the second year in a row that I would have to miss because I was in tech rehearsals that weekend. When we’re in tech for a show we have 2 days back to back where we bring all the technical elements together – these rehearsals are 12 hours long and a pretty big deal – regardless I got grief for missing out on the event of the year. Again.

But this time, and I’m not sure where the idea originated, but somehow this time my Dad and I started talking about bringing Pop up to Philly to see me while he was in town. The Derby is on Saturday, but I had Monday off and he didn’t fly back to Louisville until Tuesday. It’s not a far drive, he would be able to see me, my bright orange house, the theater, have a good meal, and then they could head back before it got too late. Which is exactly what we did. They rolled up around noon and pulled up in front of the Orange House and my Pop got to come inside for a sit down before we headed out to lunch at Village Whiskey where he ordered their Hot Brown, which he was quick to point out was not AT ALL what a Hot Brown was supposed to be, but that it was awfully good despite the difference. I recommended he have a Kenzinger with the meal, which we both did. It was a perfect day and we sat outside for a bit while Dad went and got the car so we could drive down to the Off-Broad Street Theater so he could see where I’d been spending all my time. Our set for the show was pretty much up, and I turned on some stage lights and he sat in the house while I told him about Azuka, and Failure and how exciting and hard and wonderful it all was. He told me he was proud.

Our last stop of the day was the National Constitution Center, I had often talked about the NCC during my time there, and my Dad and I knew he would really love the Freedom Rising performance, which he did. My good friend Felicia was performing in the last show of the day, there were maybe 4 other people in the show with us and we were sitting all the way up in the back, but it was like she was performing just for us. After the show she came over for hugs and hellos and Pop said that he thought everyone in Congress should come see this show, maybe it would inspire them to get something done.

Then three generations of Heishman men dropped me back off at my little orange South Philly house where there were lots of hugs and kisses and wonderful things that mean even more in hindsight when you understand they were the last ones. That day was truly a gift, the only regret being that we didn’t get to sit and have one last Maker’s and water together, but since there had been plenty of those in the stories of the months and years prior, it is a small regret, and one that’s easily forgiven.

Dad and Pam came back up to see the show this past weekend, after spending a week packing up almost 100 years of memories of a life well lived. I was nervous and excited and sad and happy. You know, ALL OF THE THINGS. I was worried that my Dad, who had been so very close with his Dad, would have a hard time watching the show. It was, of course, a play about death, but it is also so much more than that. It’s a play about life, and love, and living and loving, it’s a play about how we come together in times of great sadness and pain and help each other move on, move forward, and finally, when we’re ready, reclaim life. So, in a lot of ways it is a good thing we were doing a play about death. Sitting together in the dark theater watching the story of The Fail family come to life and eventual death, was exactly what we needed.

My Pop lived to be 97 years old. He survived a Great Depression, served in WWII and lived through many other wars, he saw the world change in remarkable and unimaginable ways. He outlived his wife of 60 years, my amazing Mimi. He was an avid bowler, a remarkable and prolific singer, and he drank a bourbon every day. He passed away peacefully in his bed having lived a long and full life. This play has become for me a great and mighty tribute to him. And I raise my glass to J.W. Heishman, knowing that he is looking down on all of this with love.



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