In the last year of her mother’s life, Cheryl Mullen was in and out of hospital with her as her mother’s physical health deteriorated. Mullen even ended up adopting her mother’s pet parrot of 26 years, who died 10 days after her mother in 2016.
During that time, the Vancouver playwright was “dumping” her thoughts on the page in an act she described as “pure therapy.” The result was Is That All There Is?, a play inspired by her experience caring for her mother.
“A lot of people are writing plays about their very sad voyage with their parents through Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Mullen said. “This is a flip. This is a keen mind with a body that’s letting go. It presents its own complexities.”
After her mother died, Mullen put that script away for three years until Nanaimo dramaturge Nicolle Nattrass, a friend from the West Coast theatre community who had read her work, asked her about the play, which motivated her to dig it out of the drawer.
“When I said, ‘How is the play?’ the next day she’s like, ‘I’m doing a whole re-write. I’ll have it to you by Monday’ and I was like, ‘Right on,’” Nattrass said.
“I just ripped the whole thing to shreds and rebuilt it,” Mullen said.
It’s that rebuilt third draft that she will present in Nanaimo on Jan. 14 as part of TheatreOne’s Emerging Voices staged readings series.
Mullen said it was beneficial to return to the script with a new perspective.
“I was able to go on tangents with it and make sense of things a whole lot more and realize what a profoundly important piece that leading up to her death was to me and to her. And so it got emotional in a way but it’s a more rounded emotion that you feel rather than the raggedy, jaggedy rough edges of something that’s just happening,” she said. “So I think a person becomes a little bit more philosophical about actually what the relationship was with the parent when you’ve stepped away for a while. That it was incredibly profound and deep and complex.”
The play has some fantasy elements when Mullen’s mother’s character takes too much morphine and hallucinates.
“My mother, this is the true part of the story, would not relinquish any control of what drugs she took or how she took them,” Mullen said.
It’s in those altered states that her daytime TV comes to life and Albert Einstein drops by to discuss philosophy. It’s also when she has meaningful conversations with her parrot, which is played by an actor.
“We get the dumb parrot in front of the family, just repeating words and stuff,” Mullen said. “And then we get this being that knows a lot about the big picture of life, about also letting go and entertaining the possibility of death and afterwards.”
At the staged reading Mullen is hoping to get a sense of how the words sound when spoken by actors and she’ll be looking out for what “clunks,” “doesn’t ring true” or seems “forced or artificial or confusing.” She said she equates the process to chipping away at a sculpture.
“We’ve got the statue,” she said. “But the detail work, that where I’m at.”
WHAT’S ON … TheatreOne’s Emerging Voices series presents Is That All There Is? by Cheryl Mullen at the Port Theatre lobby, 125 Front St., on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Admission by donation.