For actress Megan Cole, who headed the critically acclaimed Seattle cast, the play resonated with her previous role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning WIT, whose main character also faces the end of life. Vesta is different, she adds, in examining aspects of end of life such as advanced directives, Medicare and pain management.
“The practical parts are just as important as the emotional parts because they are the daily things that people have to trudge through on their way to finding the peace that can happen at the end of life,” says Cole, who is also active in the national end-of-life movement.
Many hospice and end-of-life organizations have embraced the 90-minute play, which ICEOL makes available as a teaching tool for a modest licensing fee to community groups, health-care institutions, medical and nursing schools, hospice and end-of-life organizations, churches and others.
Harnetiaux was commissioned to write a short play that would ultimately become Vesta for a 1991 health conference on aging, primarily sponsored by Washington State University. During the process, the play helped him resolve issues from his father’s death in 1987. “I lagged behind the rest of my family in accepting my father’s dying and took issue with his wishes to forgo nutrition and hydration in the final days of his life,” he says, “so I brought to the play my own experiences and shortcomings. There was an element of therapy in writing Vesta that greatly helped my own grieving process.”
To research the topic, he went with a medical social worker on home visits to patients in various stages of dying. “It was such a sacred experience,” says Harnetiaux, who is also an attorney. “So many of them helped me try to capture the emotional and interior landscape of the dying process.”
Theater gives people permission to discuss death and dying, which is taboo in the American culture, Harnetiaux says. “With the critical distance the play provides, you can see yourself, your values, questions and struggles in sharper relief. In that sense, theater is a ministry.”
Twohig agrees. “People are better able to think about their own issues by observing the lives of others, whether watching a movie, seeing a play, or reading a book. Vesta is another resource to raise consciousness about end-of-life issues.”
The play’s embodiment of the intersection of spirituality and health at the end of life supports the mission of ICEOL, which is among a handful of such institutions at the nation’s elite academic centers and the only one housed in a divinity school rather than a medical school.