David Strathairn and Frances McDormand in a 2017 performance (Photo/Courtesy Theater of War Productions)
David Strathairn and Frances McDormand in a 2017 performance (Photo/Courtesy Theater of War Productions)

Marquee stars put the ultimate drama — death — onstage in S.F.

As Sophocles surely knew, people often are able to absorb tragedy much more easily on a stage than in their own lives.

That’s the principle behind an upcoming performance at the Castro Theatre, where a New York-based theater collective will guide audiences to reflect on the ultimate drama we tend to avoid. After staged readings of scenes from two plays by the ancient Greek playwright, the ensemble will ask: Is death necessarily a tragedy?

“I see it, rather, as a transition,” says Judith Redwing Keyssar, palliative care director at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, sponsor of “End of Life: A Theatrical Exploration of Death, Dying and Suffering.”

Award-winning actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn will headline the April 19 ensemble performance along with artistic director Brian Doerries and company manager Marjolaine Goldsmith. The marquee event is part of “Reimagine End of Life,” an April 16-22 series of public events throughout San Francisco exploring how our society could better deal with this inescapable fact of life.

“We live in a culture where death is still a taboo subject,” said Keyssar. “So many people live in constant fear about it, although their fear is often not death itself, but about the dying process, and being in pain. It’s about ‘who is going to show up to help me.’ But having a normal conversation about death being part of life is not normally what we do. And yet there are a lot of things that happen between getting sick, and dying, that are made easier by having open discussion.”

Though her work in palliative care — which marshals medical care and social services for patients at any point in a serious illness — involves many discussions with patients, their families, medical staff and others, Keyssar is excited about using theater as a vehicle to further “enable and normalize conversations that are still difficult in our culture.”

She first encountered Theater of War, a rotating collective of professional actors who present community-specific projects addressing public health and social issues, at a presentation on community violence at the Bayview Opera House last year.

“It was an incredibly powerful event. Frances McDormand was there also,” Keyssar said. “The work of Theater of War is about social justice and talking about difficult issues, and Frances McDormand is an advocate for that. I feel she really walks her talk, and it seems that’s true of David Strathairn as well.”

Keyssar kept in touch with Doerries, and saw the Reimagine series as an ideal time for the company to return to San Francisco. Two individual donors who are strong supporters of JFCS’ Palliative Care Program provided funding, as did the Stupski Foundation and Northern California Grantmakers.

The actors will offer dramatic readings of scenes from “Philoctetes” and “Women of Trachis” as a catalyst for audience discussions about the challenges faced by communities, patients, caregivers and medical professionals who work in the fields of palliative care, hospice, geriatrics and nursing. The selected scenes from Sophocles’ works present emotionally charged, ethically complex situations involving suffering patients and conflicted caregivers, providing an ancient perspective on contemporary medical issues.

“If there are 900 people at the Castro Theatre who are touched by this, hopefully they’re going to go home and talk with at least one other person about how it tapped into their own feelings about the end of life,” Keyssar said. “I think this is how we broaden the conversations in this culture.”

Keyssar, author of “Last Acts of Kindness: Lessons for the Living from the Bedsides of the Dying,” has been an advocate for more comprehensive and compassionate attention to the sick and dying for most of her adult life. She started in the field in the late 1980s when her best friend died after a motorcycle accident at age 30. Keyssar determined to become a nurse with a focus on end-of-life care.

“Death happens, at any age,” she said. “My friend gave me the greatest gift of my life, to understand that the work I was supposed to do was really about being a midwife to the dying.”

Judging by ticket sales and the broad participation in events across all age groups, she believes that the younger generation will stand up for — and even initiate — changes that will improve the social factors that condition our experience of dying.

“There are 79 million baby boomers in this country,” Keyssar said. “I have this fantasy of a March for Mortality in Washington where everyone is out there saying, ‘We need better health care at the end of life.’”

“End of Life: A Theatrical Exploration of Death, Dying and Suffering,” 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. Free with RSVP.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.