Most likely the first (and perhaps only) question anyone asks when hearing about a transplant—heart or other organ—is about the resulting acceptance or rejection. Certainly, that’s what Georgette Kelly concerns herself with in I Carry Your Heart, but her considerations go much further in ways that may seem obvious as her play unfolds but are truly fresh and powerful.
Kelly wants to know how after a transplant has taken place it affects the donor and the recipient and even, more broadly, how it can impinge profoundly on the donor’s family and the recipient’s family in ways that can manifest as highly complex—as (excuse the pun) heart-rending.
Tess (Dana Scurlock) has a failing heart. So when the hospital call comes that a healthy heart is suddenly available, her wife Lydia (Nicole Paloma Sarro) rushes her to the hospital, leaving her and Tess’ stepson Josh (John Anthony Torres) hoping for the best. Waiting for the outcome, Lydia berates herself for hurrying so determinedly that she allowed Tess no time to pray before leaving home. Josh, worried himself, assures his mother she did exactly what she had to do.
In the meantime, Phoebe Wilder (Rebi Paganini), the estranged daughter of the donor, has also arrived at the hospital, having only just learned of her mother’s bequest and trying to ascertain that it’s all on the up-and-up. She wants to be assured her mother’s organs haven’t been prematurely harvested. Eager to find out what she can, she grills intensive-care-unit doctor Blake (Nico Piccardo) until she realizes she’s been rude and makes amends that lead to an incipient romance.
All the while, donor Debra Wilder (Dey Young), a successful novelist, wanders through the properly antiseptic set. (Justin Swader and Christopher Swader are the designers; Emily White chose the beige peignoir Debra floats in.) Debra is living on, of course, alive in the imaginations of Phoebe and Tess. The point is that once we’re deceased, we remain present in ways such as a heart beating in another body and, more traditionally of course, in persistent memory.
In the specific I Carry Your Heart case, Debra exists even more decidedly having left behind a memoir for daughter Phoebe. It’s intended to be an apology for what’s gone on between them over the silent years—Debra’s having been a successful novelist and perhaps careless mother to Phoebe, Phoebe’s being a budding poet chafing in her mother’s shadow.
And that’s only a fraction of what results from a transplant that goes well at first but has its worrying complications. In other very credible developments, Tess thinks about wanting to thank Debra’s family—whoever they may be—and sends a letter without advising Lydia. Phoebe falls for Blake and he for her, but her difficulty in overcoming the emotional distance she’s created as her mother’s daughter gets in the way.
The psychological problems explored here are personal, unique. (Developing psychological problems are likely never discussed when surgeons describe the impending operation.) But they emphasize the unexpected repercussions that can eventuate when something serious but at the same time matter-of-fact transpires. With I Carry Your Heart, a family consisting of two women and a teenage boy and a family that’s been reduced to only a single survivor must deal with outcomes that might never have been contemplated in the initial urgent circumstances.
At the very least, they’re awkward, “awkward” an adjective that crops up in the dialogue. Curiously, some of the writing comes across as awkward, at least as directed by Cate Caplin and played by an otherwise accomplished cast taking on especially delicate, not often tackled material.
But there might be something else going on here. I Carry Your Heart (the title is lifted from the e. e. cummings poem) is presented in 59E59 Theatre’s smallest space. The actors asked to present these fragile matters are almost constantly smack up against the three rows of patrons. Is it as awkward for them as it is for the audience? If so, it may be that I Carry Your Heart is a drama that requires a proscenium stage to have its strongest impact.
There’s no gainsaying that playwright Kelly has located a subject just waiting to be examined. She’s brought it valuable attention after years, maybe decades or more, when no such thing as bedside manner courses were available. That’s long since changed for the better, but perhaps what’s needed now (if there aren’t any) are specialty courses—advising, for instance, on potential transplant ramifications.
Thanks to Georgette Kelly, for, among other things, dispensing one important bedside lesson.
I Carry Your Heart opened April 3, 2019, at 59E59 and runs through April 20. Tickets and information: 59e59.org