To Hell and Back: Hadestown and a medical maelstrom with Mama (April-June, 2019)

The soundtrack for spring was Hadestown, a folk operatic musical reimagining of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  Back in December, on a lark, I downloaded the 2016 New York Theater Workshop (NYTW) off-Broadway cast album.  I was completely captivated, nay obsessed, by the music.  In the preceding months, I had considered possible investments in Be More Chill and Beetlejuice, but ultimately, decided against both.  Be More Chill was too high school for me, although cute, and I didn’t find the music too memorable.  We both had loved the original Beetlejuice movie, but the hefty price tag left me leery.   Reading that Hadestown was at the National Theater in London in the fall piqued my interest.  The reviews from London were favorable.  Our friend Mayde had mentioned Hadestown to us years before, after seeing the NYTW version, as “possibly the next Hamilton”.

Hadestown Broadway folk opera musical logo

After finding myself listening non-stop to the cast album,  I sent an email to every New York theater habitué with which I had any connection to see if anyone knew one of the producers.  To my surprise, my friend Wendy Gillespie (Allegiance producer) was investing in Hadestown, mostly on the strength of her Allegiance partners’ involvement.  She hooked me up with Joey, Lorenzo and Sing out Louise Productions; they had a few shares left.  I took one, as did our NY realtor, Leslie.  Mayde pleaded with her husband Jon, but he wouldn’t go for it. (Mayde, by text: NO FUN!)

Of course, Hadestown, coming along in December, was way after our January-June schedule was set, so we hadn’t asked for opening night week off.  Only weeks before the April 17 opening, it wasn’t clear if I would make it.  We were so short of people at work that getting both me and Steve off was impossible. I managed to scrape together just enough days off in a row to make the trip worthwhile.  Little did I know that Hadestown events would bookend my own personal descent into a hellish medical maelstrom with Mama.

Central Park at night, on the cusp of spring, April 2019

Spring approaches the southern end of Central Park, April 2019.

The flowering trees in Central Park (cherries, pear and dogwood) were lushly appointed a few weeks before the rest of the foliage caught up in April 2019.

I took in a few other shows during Hadestown opening night week, including Oklahoma! (loved it, especially curly-haired  Damon Daunno playing Curly) and King Lear with the inimitable Glenda Jackson. Walking through Central Park to the theater district most days was my workout, set off by a lush profusion of blossoms heralding spring.

The largest cluster of cherry trees is near our entrance to Central Park.

Patrons at the radically reimagined Oklahoma! stream onto the stage for chili and cornbread at intermission.

Taking an alternate route through Central Park on my way to the theatre district to see King Lear, I found myself wandering through, appropriately enough, the Shakespeare Garden.

The cast of gender-neutral King Lear, flanking the legendary Glenda Jackson (white shirt, center), takes a bow.

Clarissa, Jason and I also enjoyed an evening with Nassim, a work by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who pairs with a different actor every night, who comes in cold to an envelope containing a script.  Jeremy Shamos was game, a genial theatrical partner for Nassim, as cultural and language divides were bridged in an enjoyable interaction.  My one night off from theatre (Monday, when most are closed) was spent having a yummy brussel sprout salad with Wendy and her investing partner and friend Karen at UWS stalwart Cafe Luxembourg.

The highlight of the week, of course, was opening night of Hadestown.  I called in professional help from the Glam Squad, who came to the apartment to puff up my hair and smoke up my eyes.  For an outfit, I went with a Hadestown-toned ensemble, a red Akris sheath dress with a black lattice Oscar de la Renta evening coat over it.  Clarissa had her hair done, staying in pincurls until the last minute before we met up at PS Kitchen for Sing Out Louise’s pre-party, where we met Joey and Lorenzo in person, oogled some celebrities (Allegiance star George Takei) and enjoyed seriously delicious vegan versions of buffalo chicken wings and bao.

Sing Out Louise threw a nice pre-party at vegan restaurant PS Kitchen down the street from the Walter Kerr theater.

Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown creator, in black lace, mobbed on the red carpet at Hadestown opening at the Walter Kerr Theater on April 17, 2019.

Another star of Hadestown: the set, a decrepit, Depression-era New Orleans inflected bar. Rachel Hauck won one of Hadestown’s 8 Tonys for Best Set Design of a Musical.

The cast and creative team of Hadestown raise a glass to the audience on opening night. From left: Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer (Fate), Patrick Page (Hades), Amber Gray (Persephone), Andre de Shields (Hermes), Rachel Chavkin (director), Anaïs Mitchell (composer and songwriter), David Neumann (choreographer), Eva Noblezada (Eurydice)

The cast and creative team of Hadestown raise a glass to the audience on opening night. From left: Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer (Fate), Patrick Page (Hades), Amber Gray (Persephone), André de Shields (Hermes), Rachel Chavkin (director), Anaïs Mitchell (composer and songwriter), David Neumann (choreographer), Eva Noblezada (Eurydice).

We had great seats for the performance, 3rd row center, right next to Leslie and her husband Larry.  The audience response and energy were electrifying!

With Larry, Leslie and Clarissa: moments before the opening curtain went up, the theater was buzzing!

Even the afterparty at Guastavino’s was superb, featuring abundant southern food, a great atmosphere and a glittering crowd.

The glittering crowd at the Hadestown opening night afterparty at Guastavino’s crowds the bar.

It took us so long to get a car to go to the party that we didn’t realize for the first hour that the reviews had already come out during the second half of the performance and were overwhelmingly glowing, so no wonder the party was humming!

At the Hadestown afterparty at Guastavino’s: a male admirer oogles Hadestown star Amber Gray and Orange is the New Black star Taylor Schilling.

Amber Gray (Hadestown’s Persephone) rocking it at the after party at Guastavino’s.

Tartar sisters at the Hadestown opening night afterparty! (Courtesy of Joey Monda)

We were so short at work that particular week, that I had to fly home the following day to work Friday.  We had dinner with Nancy and Gerry that night, in a second unsuccessful attempt at a grunion run, this time on the beach at Del Mar.

Unsuccessful grunion run attempt number 2: April 2019, Del Mar.

We had tried the month before, with Ralph and Gail, having dinner at Piatti’s and heading afterwards to La Jolla Shores beach.

Unsuccessful grunion run attempt number 1: March 2019, at Scripps Pier.

On the weekend, Steve and I toured yet another independent and assisted living situation (St. Paul’s) before seeing San Diego Repertory Theater’s very creditable version of Sweat, which I had seen with Clarissa on Broadway in 2017.  Two weeks before, we had visited Wesley Palms as a potential future home for Mama. Our friend Patricia, an American living in Paris, was visiting for the weekend.  After catching up with her, as well as her friends Mychelle and Jeannette, Pat and I headed to the Old Globe for a new musical called Life After, which Lorenzo and company had been scoping out as a possible future project while I was in Washington, DC in late March.

The following Monday, a phone call with a neuropsychologist from Dallas, with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for Mama, would slam firmly shut many of the options we’d been considering.  Many facilities will not admit people with a diagnosis of dementia, although they may accommodate existing residents who subsequently develop dementia.  Suddenly, a small group home near Lemon Grove which catered to Japanese seniors, Ohana, began to look like the leading contender.  Clarissa, Jason and I had visited it together last November.  At the time, I had thought Mama wasn’t as far gone as the residents we met.  But it was small and secure (a maximum of 6 residents), had Japanese-speaking staff and owner Seiko and a small garden.  Now, they had a private room available.  I put a deposit down to hold the room.

At our meet-up in Washington, D.C. at the end of March, Clarissa, Carlton and I had thought we might be able to eek out another year with Mama staying in the house.  We made up a schedule in which one or another of us would visit DFW every 6 weeks or so.  I had already booked tickets for Steve and me to go there over Memorial Day weekend.

Suddenly, we had to dramatically accelerate our plan to eventually move Mama to a more secure environment.  Clarissa had already scheduled a visit with Mama at the end of April, coinciding with a 2-week vacation Steve and I had to New York, with a home exchange near Barcelona in the middle. She accompanied Mama to the doctor and succeeded in having the necessary paperwork completed for admission to Ohana.  Mama’s longtime doctor suggested her bone density, mammogram and lab work be updated while Mama was still in Texas.

Meanwhile, Steve and I took a red-eye on a Friday night after work to NYC, arriving exhausted despite upgrading to so-called first class.  Anticipating limited attention spans, we didn’t schedule anything until afternoon.  We’d been wanting to try a New York Adventure Club outing.  Steve selected Inside Wasson Artistry, Maker of Medieval European Weapons & Armor for our first venture.  It was out in Queens and turned out to be a fascinating introduction to an alternative world of armor and jousting.

A man with a unique métier: medieval armor marker Jeff Wasson.

Beautiful custom made medieval armor accessories by Jeff Wasson.

Jeff Wasson makes historically accurate and functional suits and armor accessories emulating those of 14th-16th century Europe.  He began as a teenager, making chainmail and one thing led to another.  Now, he makes a living custom making armor, as well as teaching metal-working where he studied, at the School of Visual Arts.  Jeff and his wife travel internationally to compete in jousts. NY Adventure Club founder Corey Schneider was there too, since this was the first Club outing here, so we had a chance to chat with him as well.

After a quick meal at UrbanSpace, we finished the evening at the Japan Society, catching one of the films being shown as part of the Other Japanese New Wave: Radical Films from 1958-61Only She Knows (1960) is a psychological thriller, in which a young woman is attacked by a serial rapist and killer who is being sought by her father and boyfriend, both detectives.  It was the debut film of Osamu Takahashi, assistant director on Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), who later became a novelist.

Our theater-going tradition is walking through Central Park en route to the theatre district. The park was in splendid flower this spring.

The big event of our weekend in NY was seeing Hadestown together.  Before the matinee, we met up with friends from the Bay area, Jason and Pepi, who we met on a Galapagos trip in 2006, organized by our mutual friend Skip. Pepi’s Facebook post raving about Network a few days earlier had cued us in that they were in NY.  Our favorite theater district Korean small plates place, Danji, was a nice setting for catching up on 13 years.

Hadestown marquee: Come see how the world could be, a nice motto for today.

Patrick Page (Hades), Amber Gray (Persephone) and André de Shields (Hermes) drink in well deserved applause after the final curtain at Hadestown; all three would be nominated for Tonys for their roles, with André winning Best Featured Actor in a Musical, one of 8 Tonys Hadestown would win.

Patrick Page (Hades), Amber Gray (Persephone) and André de Shields (Hermes) drink in well deserved applause after the final curtain at Hadestown; all three would be nominated for Tonys for their roles, with André winning Best Featured Actor in a Musical, one of 8 Tonys Hadestown would win.

The three Fates were fabulous! From left: Kay Trinidad, Jewelle Blackman and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer. Exceptionally tall and striking member of the worker’s chorus, Timothy Hughes, looks on.

Your guide to the Underground: Hermes, played by silver-suited, winged-sleeved André de Shields. Worker’s chorus members look on.

André de Shields (Hermes) and Amber Gray (Persephone) at curtain call of Hadestown.

At Hadestown, we were seated in the 3rd row, center, only one seat off from opening night!  This was a moment of truth for me, for Steve had had to be gently strong-armed into investing in Hadestown (he succumbed to my musical obsession).  Thankfully, he loved it (“a musical for people who don’t really like musicals”).  Equally gratifying was the overwhelming audience response, with an instant standing ovation, just as electrifying as opening night.  Since opening night is filled with investors, friends and family of the cast, virtually everyone having skin in the game, it is difficult extrapolate from an opening audience reaction.

Later that evening, we caught one film of the Tribeca Film Festival, a creepy psychological thriller called Georgetown, after a southern style meal at Blue Smoke and a visit to the completed Calatrava Oculus subway station.

Although we watched Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus entry to the World Trade Center subway station being built, somehow, we’d never explored it completed. Its soaring wings seem a bit penned in on the south side (right).

The vast World Trade Center Memorial pools are breath-taking testaments to the enormity of the loss sustained by the world on September 11, 2001.

The World Trade Center Memorial pools are lighted at night, as is the National September 11 Museum. Struts from the downed Towers can be seen in the lighted lobby of the museum.

We were off to Barcelona the next day for a week, staying in a comfortable home in Sitges, a beach community about 1/2 hour train ride from Barcelona.  This was a house exchange with Anne and Mel, who stayed in our Sedona house 4 years before.  The airfare was also “free”, using up a voucher from Steve cancelling on our planned 2017 Russia trip.  We rented a car, so we had free range of motion to explore the area, including the Garraf wine country, Montserrat and Poblet monesteries, Roman ruins in Tarragona and the Gaudi crypt in Colonia Güell. Of course, we renewed our explorations of Barcelona and Gaudi’s and his contemporary’s architectural wonders.

Back in New York for our second stay, we took in New York’s newest architectural wonder, Vessel, in Hudson Yards, already appearing to be THE place for selfies.

A cross between a beehive, and a futuristic shopping mall, the newest NYC landmark: Vessel, in Hudson Yards,on the West side.

Manhattan’s newest landmark: the Vessel at Hudson Yards on the Westside.

We attempted catch up on the Tony nominees for Best New Play.  The theatrical highlight for me was The Ferryman, a sprawling family drama set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, although both Ink and Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me also had their merits.

Waiting for The Ferryman to start!

While Steve had Drunken Monkey take-out with Aaron and Sarah,  I met up with Clarissa for a workshop staging of a new musical, American Morning, by a friend of hers, Tim Huang.  This is based on a timely and quintessential New York and American immigrant story of two cabbies sharing a medallion as they pursue their dreams of making it in the U.S.

While in Barcelona, a notice for Mama popped up in my email.  Despairing of communicating with her doctors, back in November I had resorted to sending a registered letter to the office to let them know I was concerned enough about her memory that I thought she should undergo a formal work-up. Efforts to call on the phone were unbelievably frustrating, although the staff were as nice as could be once connected, which might be 45 minutes later.  Since Mama’s doctor visit in December with Clarissa and me and the initiation of her work-up, I had discovered a better way to get through: the patient portal.  I signed Mama up, using my cell phone and email for contact.  In fact, this was increasingly necessary, as Mama frequently didn’t answer the phone or check email regularly.  This way, I knew about her upcoming appointments and received her results.

Unexpectedly, that mammogram to which Clarissa took Mama turned out to be suspicious.  Reading the report, my heart sank.  Being a breast imager, I could tell the reader had no doubt.  From Barcelona, I arranged for Fumie to take Mama for a more detailed evaluation, including ultrasound, which was equally suspicious.  Mama’s primary care physician’s response was well-intended but old fashioned, referring her to a breast surgeon.  From my point of view, this would only delay what was needed: a biopsy and a diagnosis.  Through the portal, I asked Mama’s doctor to order what she needed, an ultrasound-guided breast biopsy.  It was clear this was new territory for him.

It took 7 phone calls to multiple facilities over 2 days to finally close in on one that did biopsies and had access to Mama’s studies.

Medical torture in the form of scheduling an ultrasound guided biopsy for Mama: the report in the patient portal didn’t included the facility or physician name to guide me to the right facility. It took a morning’s worth of dogged phone detective work to find the right office.

Now, all I had to do was get them an order from the doctor.  As late as 4 pm on the day prior to the 7:30 am biopsy appointment I set up, the office still didn’t have the order, although the doctor’s office assured me they faxed it.  The facility doing the biopsy actually laughed when I asked if they could call about the order, which they had faxed for counter-signing:  “Oh no, we can’t get through either!”

It did all come together and the radiologist who did the procedure was wonderful.  I spoke to her 3 mornings in a row, giving her the history just before the biopsy and when she called on the subsequent days with the histology (IDC) and the receptor status (triple negative).  This last bit of news was a particular blow.  I had been hoping Mama’s cancer would be ER+ and we could get away with oral hormonal therapy.

Hard on the heels of these developments was Steve’s postponed ablation procedure for atrial fibrillation and flutter, requiring general anesthesia, esophageal monitoring, catheterization of both groins and overnight hospitalization.  It went fine and we agreed it may have been too ambitious to have originally planned it for the Friday of the week of the Hadestown opening, exactly one week before our planned 2-week trip to New York and Barcelona.  Taking just the weekend off might have been too optimistic, so it was just as well that the doctor cancelled the entire day and it was postponed.

Mama and Fumie arrived on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, after Steve was mostly recovered from his procedure. Our entertainment for the weekend was a klezmer concert at the Encinitas Library, the kickoff of the San Diego Jewish Arts Festival.  Most of the musicians I recognized from a house concert our friend Tatiana had organized previously, including clarinetist Alexander Gourevitch, his daughter Natalya Vostriakova on violin, percussionist Carlos Maria, pianist Pavlo Getman and charismatic Romany guitarist Alexander “Sasha” Kolpakov.

Walking San Elijo Lagoon with Fumie and Mama Memorial Day weekend: everyone should be lucky enough to have a friend as true as Fumie.

On Monday, Memorial Day, we loaded up Mama, Fumie and the 3 boxes shipped ahead and headed down to Lemon Grove to introduce Mama to Ohana.  The owners, Seiko and Frank, were welcoming and Mama seemed happy enough to eat ice cream with the other residents, Greta, Lola, Fumie and Jun.  Although we’d talked about moving her in that day, the breast cancer diagnosis and need for consultations with surgery, medical oncology and radiation oncology on subsequent days pushed back Mama’s move a few days.

The following day, Tuesday, I took the afternoon off to accompany Mama to multi-disciplinary clinic, where she saw all 3 specialists on the same afternoon. The next day, Fumie and Mama came to work with me.  We put Fumie in an Uber for the trip to the airport and back to Irving, while Mama had injections for bone and PET scans.  Thankfully, these studies indicated she did not have metastatic disease beyond the axilla.  Shuttling Mama back and forth to the cafeteria and Early Detection Center for her studies made my busy day an even longer one.  Thankfully, Steve finished early and drove Mama out to Ohana for her first night there.

Her adjustment went fairly smoothly.  Our first visit the following weekend pointed out one ongoing challenge: Mama complained of being “bored”, not having any yarn for hand knitting.  This found me taking her down the road to Joanne’s in Lemon Grove, buying yarn for a project to occupy her, making us late for dinner further south at Romesco’s in Bonita with Miles and Tatiana.  Thankfully, the chiles in nogada was as delicious as I remembered it and Miles brought a nice chardonnay, much needed at that point to sooth frayed nerves.

My near-nightly consultations with breast cancer specializing colleagues past and present had rejected the standard of care for triple negative breast cancer, neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, as too aggressive for an 83 year old with other medical issues.  Local control options included surgery and radiation.  I agonized, considering all the possible permutations and finally decided on mastectomy as mostly likely to obtain clear margins in one procedure and possibly enable Mama to avoid 6 weeks of radiation therapy. After presenting her case to breast cancer tumor board on Wednesday, she had pre-operative evaluation, Magseed placement in an axillary lymph node and a sentinel node injection on Thursday, mastectomy on Friday and was discharged on Saturday, exactly 3 weeks after the diagnosis was confirmed.  Mama amazed me, breezing through the procedure without difficulty or even taking a single pain pill.

The same weekend was capped off by a theatrical triumph on the part of Hadestown.  For the first time, we watched the whole ceremony, at Miles’ and Tatiana’s, as Hadestown took home a total of 8 Tony Awards, including the most coveted, Best New Musical. Strange that a musical about hell bookended my own personal medical trip to hell and back with Mama, beginning back in April with opening night and concluding with a weekend which began with Mama’s mastectomy and ended with Hadestown dominating the Tony Awards.

The cast and creatives of Hadestown take in well-earned accolades on opening night: from left, Patrick Page (grey suit) as Hades, god of the underworld; Amber Gray in green “gangster’s wife” dress as Persephone, goddess of spring; Rachel Chavkin in white (soon to win a Tony Award for direction), Anaïs Mitchell, book and songwriter (shortly to win a Tony for Best Score), David Neumann (choreographer), Eva Noblezada (Euridyce) and Reeve Carney (Orpheus).


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6 thoughts on “To Hell and Back: Hadestown and a medical maelstrom with Mama (April-June, 2019)

  1. It is scary and exhausting to read your story about finding solutions for your mother’s living situation, diagnosis, ‘wisest’ treatment and the complex logistics of each procedure/visit. The final outcome seems like an optimal situation which could only have been achieved with exemplary efforts by you, family members, friends, and caring medical professionals. May your mother’s days be peaceful, painless and sparked with little projects that she enjoys. Take care.

  2. So sorry to hear your overwhelming medical problems with your Mom. So glad that she has access to your significant expertise. Imagine if she had a non-medically oriented child and was at the mercy of doctors who were not being pushed to find the best solution to her problems.

    But congratulations on Hadestown. It is definitely a winner!

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