‘Ordinary Day’ is no ordinary play: World premiere in Yountville deals with dying well

Napa Valley Register Review, Marty Nemko, September 26, 2018

“Maude, there’s no need to traipse to Yountville. There’s plenty to do here. Hell, why not just stay home and watch a movie?”

With the ever-worsening traffic, I can understand. Yet you just might want to make an exception. You see, for two weekends starting Oct. 5, a play about something we’d all be wise to think about, will be performed at Yountville’s Lincoln Theater.

What’s the issue? Well, here are hints: If you’re a young person, it could be your grandparent. If you’re middle-aged, it could be your parent, and if you’re older, it could be you or someone you care about: learning how to die well.

Yes, it’s true: You can die well or badly. Much can be done, by you and family members, if only we’re willing to think about it and know the options. Particularly thorny is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, which, according to a new report in the New England Journal of Medicine, is expected by 2060 to afflict 14 million Americans. And of course, that doesn’t count the impact on their loved ones.

Fortunate for Napa Valley residents, there’s a sugar-coated way to get smart about it all. At the Lincoln Theater, Valley Players will do six performances of the world premiere of a play about these issues that is filled with poignancy and wit: “Ordinary Day.” After each performance, there’ll be a talkback with the director, actors, and local experts on Alzheimer’s and end-of-life issues. Plus, at the Oct. 5 and 13 discussions, the playwright, Lorraine Midanik will join it. Lois Wolk, co-author of California’s right-to-die law, will attend the Oct. 7 and 13 discussions.

The performers and director are well-known to Napa Valley theatergoers. June Alane Reif directs a veteran cast: Debbie Baumann, Patte Quinn, Karen Stern, Zachary Stockton, and my wife (perhaps better known as the Napa County Superintendent of Schools) Barbara Nemko.

The actors have impressive bona fides. For example, Stern, who plays the lead, was the female lead in Palo Alto Players production of “Same Time Next Year” and Helena in Marin Shakespeare Company’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “This play reminds me of how easy it is to lose patience with older people, especially if they’re losing it,” she said. “I like to think I’ll be a better person for it.”

Nemko, who has played unusually diverse roles, from Swedish psychic in “Deathtrap” to a Brooklyn Jewish busybody in “Funny Girl” to Sophia Loren type in “Lend Me a Tenor,” said, “This play offers us hope that we can craft a better end for ourselves and those we love.”

I attended a rehearsal of “Ordinary Day” and was impressed. The actors are doing well, including having memorized their lines almost perfectly more than two weeks before opening night — it’s clear that none of them have Alzheimer’s. And I have much respect for the director, June Reif: She had Alzheimer’s experts attend rehearsal, offering advice and taking questions from the cast. And she ran her rehearsal crisply but warmly. The tone was workmanlike and positive, which ensures that the performance will keep getting better and better while the actors and stage manager are having a pleasant experience. Her notes for the actors were smart and tactfully dispensed — no yelling, autocratic director here.

“Ordinary Day” is no ordinary play for Reif. It’s personal: “I think a lot about my dad, who died of Parkinson’s disease, who had asked me to ‘take my gun and shoot me.’ We need a better way.”

Wolk said, “Anyone who knows someone at this stage of life should see this play and the talkback after the show. It will help us think about ourselves, our values, and what we want at end of our life, all of our lives. It’s important, more important than many of us realize, to try to have a good dying process.”

I would go further. “Ordinary Day” reminds us of our mortality and thus helps us live more richly today.