Anne Basting works with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Center for Aging and Community. As part of that work, she spent time at Luther Manor in Milwaukee. She loves the theatre, and has long been curious about the community-forming energy that is inherent in theatre work. So, she decided she would like to put on a play at Luther Manor with the long-term care patients there, particularly the ones with some form of dementia.
The play she wanted to do didn’t exist, so she began to envision creating one from the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who waited patiently and loyally for twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan War. Each day, Penelope wove her stories into a tapestry and then ripped them out at night while she fended off hundreds of suitors who sought her for her beauty, her kingdom and her wealth. Anne sought the help of Sojourn Theatre, a Portland-based company that has developed a site-based, community-specific method that focuses on process and a dialogue between artists and audience/community members, rather than a traditional ‘play’ as we have come to know it.
Last week I saw a preview of the play itself, aptly titled Finding Penelope. It blends the classic tale of Penelope with the present-day story of a young woman who has finally come to Luther Manor to see her mother, Penelope, whom she has never visited in the home because of fear: fear of being surrounded by the intense reality and needs of age, fear of being forgotten and the nearness of death. The result is the great, millennia-old epic story, grounded in a serious reality that we all deal with as we age, or as those we love and depend upon age, and lose what we think of as ‘identity’ here in the West.
Finding Penelope performs this week, and I am told that all performances are sold out, but try to get tickets anyway. It is a unique and wonderful theatrical (and life) experience that many people should see. It may sound like it would be depressing, but it is just the opposite because the residents, the people who live there, who wait there, and those who serve them there are so joyously involved in the making of it and in the performance.
The purpose of creating Finding Penelope was to explore what caregivers and doctors have known for a long time: that exercising the creative imagination, connecting people to each other through the arts, stimulates memory and raises the individual above the pain of loss, and can actually bring pleasure and joy with a longer-lasting and more profound effect than pharmaceuticals could ever do. And that is the secret that Penelope holds.