When people thumb through the playbill while waiting to see Vesta, they think they have come to see a play examining one family’s struggle with end-of-life issues.
They need to think again.
They will come to know Vesta, a fiercely independent 75-year-old matriarch confronting a debilitating stroke and then terminal cancer; her middle-age daughter Carol, who is her mother’s primary caregiver; and Carol’s husband and teenage daughter Kelly, each struggling with the family’s upheaval.
But it’s who the audience doesn’t expect to see in this tender and often humorous portrait of an ordinary family that surprises them most: themselves.
“Vesta is everyone’s story,” explains Jeanne Twohig, deputy director of the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life (ICEOL).
“When you see the characters step on stage and get engrossed in their story, you can’t help but take those same issues and apply them to your own life.”
Last January, Twohig traveled to Seattle, Wash., for the first professional production of Vesta. Following the performances, she led talk-back sessions attended by more than 100 people, including hospice nurses and social workers.
“Emotions ranged from sadness to joy to anger to regret,” Twohig recalls. “Like so many pieces of art, the play is a call to action about what we as a society can do differently about these issues.”
Life’s End Institute in Missoula, Mont., a national organization devoted to exploring concepts of death and dying, first acquired the rights to license Vesta in clinical settings from playwright Bryan Harnetiaux of Spokane, Wash., in 2002. It assigned these licensing rights in 2005 to ICEOL, which was founded in 2000. The mission of the Duke institute is to create and promote knowledge—and its use—in caring for the whole person at life’s end.
The play’s main character is aptly named Vesta after the Greek goddess of home and hearth, which is what the play exudes—the sense of coming home to the end of life. “We love this play because it’s a gentle and non-threatening way to introduce deeply personal, and sometimes sensitive and frightening, issues,” says Twohig.