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Rendezvous with the Reaper

One-woman show addresses taboo topic of death

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DEATH is a fact of life that we go to great lengths to ignore.

Will a play about death, called Expiration Date, face the same fate and die at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival as crowds seek out comedies?

"I think a lot of people are ready to talk about this topic," says Candy Simmons, the Minneapolis-based writer/performer of the solo drama. "What I found most interesting in talking about the piece to folks is that 85 per cent of the time I mentioned the topic, I was offered an unsolicited anecdote in return."

Simmons, who might be remembered by fringe-goers for past audience favourites Afterlife (2009) and Scarlet Woman (2011), discovered, that while death is a taboo topic, more North Americans are willing to broach the subject. Aging baby boomers are having to confront the issue through caring for their dying parents or falling sick themselves.

Simmons wasn’t eager to break the stigma of talking about death, but it crashed her life suddenly and cruelly. In 2007, Simmons lost one of her best friends to leukemia and, within a year, she said goodbye to another pal, also in her early 30s.

"When I got onto the other side of such an unfathomable loss, what I was most struck by wasn’t just the hole that was left from their physical absence, but my complete lack of a tool kit to deal with the situation when it was happening," she says.

Simmons laments the missed opportunities with those friends to talk about their dying, as well as the guilt she still possesses for denying them that courtesy.

"I changed the subject, not because it upset them, but because it upset me," says Simmons. "I think many of us are guilty of cowering in the corner or going into complete denial when faced with death, because we’re terrified."

The topic fascinated Simmons enough to develop a stage work around it, but she was adamant it should not be autobiographical. Her research involved talking to people who were the recipient of a terminal diagnosis or cared for someone with an expiration date. She conducted 30 interviews to shape one woman’s journey from diagnosis to visit from the Grim Reaper.

Lucille is young, smart and has been given six months to live. The heart of Expiration Date, which premièred in Minneapolis in 2012 , is an exploration of her emotional roadblocks and the sheer logistics of navigating this part of life. Simmons hopes the audience learns something from watching her confront her death sentence, at times with good grace and occasionally with bad behaviour.

Characters Lucille encounters along the way are inspired by real people Simmons met or from research.

"It was important for me that it not be a dirge — that’s the thing about experiencing that stage of the life cycle with someone; life doesn’t just stop," she says. "You still laugh, get annoyed, get mad, are silly, you’re still living, just under extreme circumstances."

The hour-long monologue offers audiences a safe way to laugh and be present with someone who is going through the death process.

"When I verbalize fears in my own life, they seem to lose a bit of power over me," Simmons says. "This show is about starting that conversation, confronting that experience together."

Tough, unpleasant subjects are not new to the fringe stage. This festival sees the return of This Is Cancer, a much-lauded, one-man satirical cabaret that seeks to use black humour to dispel our discomfort and dread for the feared disease. Performer Bruce Horak said he received letters from cancer patients frustrated by the shroud pulled over the affliction.

"One fellow wrote about how he couldn’t talk about with his family," Horak says. "They shut right down, they get really uncomfortable. Everyone wants to sit around and cry and look at me like they are measuring me for my coffin. He said the show talked about cancer and laughed about it."

For Simmons, creating and performing Expiration Date has been cathartic — not surprising, given that she dies onstage every night. To honour her dear friends has also been gratifying.

"Here’s the thing: we’re all going to die, our loved ones are going to die, it’s a total bummer, but if we don’t get better at laughing and talking about it, a lot of time is going to be wasted being terrified."

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