During his time as a chaplain in the hospital and prison, Secretary David Butler sought to help people find faith in the extremes of life. Some faced certain death, others an uncertain future. Many asked Butler questions about life after death, redemption, and what the future would hold for them.
Butler, a writer, translated those conversations into a play called “Dying to Know,” which he completed ten years ago, but it was never staged beyond two readings. After receiving what he called a “grim” cancer diagnosis this summer, he and a friend from Mad Horse Theater got it produced in full, and fast.
Butler, 70, whose faith journey began with atheism and then Buddhism before feeling the presence of God, describes himself as a Christian agnostic. He’s never had easy answers to questions about the afterlife, nor now when he confronts them while undergoing treatment for stage 4 esophageal cancer, a diagnosis with a 5 percent survival rate just a few years later.
“It’s a scary disease,” he said.
In “Dying to Know,” which opened Thursday at Mad Horse Theater Company in South Portland and will run through December 12, Butler writes about his personal experiences, based on his work as a minister and his approach to the unanswerable questions of the afterlife and deal with death. His cancer diagnosis motivated him to revisit the piece, but he didn’t rewrite it.
“I could write a very different piece today,” he said. But he did want to see it produced, because of his own diagnosis and because so many others have faced their own end-of-life questions during the pandemic.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the past four or five months thinking about death, and that’s the central theme of this piece,” he said. “Death has been a big part of American life for the past two years. More and more people have come closer to it and are struggling to cope with it.”
“Dying to know” might help.
The 90-minute one-act play focuses on two main characters. Caroline, played by Hannah Daly, is an angry young woman in a hospice dying of cancer, and Maura, played by Janice Gardner, is a volunteer at a hospice who needs to talk to Caroline about her feelings. Paul Haley plays several characters who weave in and out of the play, including a priest.
Despite its heavy character, the script is quietly funny. Maura, who is on her first assignment as a hospice volunteer, is clearly confused when she lies dying in a hospital bed with someone and makes a mess of her introduction, calling Caroline first a patient, then a guest and, finally, “My first dying person. Oh God! I certainly can’t say that. That’s the biggest no-no.”
Amused, Caroline waves the apology away. ‘No, I’d rather enjoy this. I may be afraid of dying, but I’m not nearly as afraid of it as you seem to me.’
Butler based the character Caroline on several people he served while they were dying. He based Maura in part on his wife, Maureen Butler.
Maureen’s father died when she was 21. Two brothers died when she was 39 and 40. And right after that, her mother fell ill with Alzheimer’s. Grief has been present for most of her life, along with the questions of what happens to loved ones after they pass away.
“Some people have quite concrete faith in heaven and hell and meeting people they love and that everyone is back together,” Maureen Butler said. “I’d love it if that were true. But I’m not clear about that at all.”
Being married to a believer didn’t help. She always challenged her husband: “You tell me you are a religious person. Prove to me there is something after death, talk to me about it – please!'” But Butler didn’t, and couldn’t, because he didn’t know.
That was one of the reasons he started writing the play ten years ago, to explore some of the spiritual aspects of death. In Butler’s hands, the question of spirituality is answered not in reunions of loved ones in the afterlife, but in the actions of people living on Earth. “Dying to Know” is about a friendship that grows between two women as they confront questions and fears about death.
The Butlers, who live in Bath, have long been members of the Maine theater community. David is an author, playwright and actor whose other plays include “The Grand O’Neill” and “The Terminal Bar”. The Boston Center for the Arts produced a biographical piece, “The High Priest of Infinity.” Maureen is an actor and poet. They each had children from previous marriages.
Butler preached at Days Ferry Congregational Church in Woolwich and spent many years in the Congregational Church of Gorham. He studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he also worked as a chef.
He spoke of his faith in a recent Days Ferry sermon, comparing it to swimming in the middle of the ocean and trusting that “what floats you in those 300 feet of water is something we can rely on.”
God is a mystery, he told the congregation, “and in fact it’s almost foolish to talk about God, which is why we usually don’t. As you can see, in this church we don’t talk about God. We’re talking about the experience of God, which is something else. We are talking about this visible bit of light that we know, recognize and can trust.”
Mad Horse presents its plays in a former school building on Mosher Street in South Portland. The Butlers attended a Thanksgiving week and watched the action as they sat on the sidelines with director Nick Schroeder. Butler takes chemotherapy every other week in Boston, and the sessions weaken him for several days after that.
“I have a week of good time every two weeks, so I’m limited in my ability to compete,” he said.
The night he attended the rehearsal, he had just learned that the infusion scheduled for the following morning had been postponed. That news delighted him, because it meant he would enjoy Thanksgiving.
“I’m excited about this piece,” he said before rehearsal, “and I’m glad someone is doing it locally. This particular group at Mad Horse are people that I really respect and admire. They’re really good actors. And Nick is a top-notch director. They’re all good friends and I couldn’t be happier that we’re doing this.”
Schroeder is a 10-year-old friend of the Butlers and considers David a father figure. They had often talked about doing the play one day. When Butler got his diagnosis, Schroeder accelerated the plan. He called Butler “a very good friend and role model to me in many ways, and I’m honored to work so closely with his ideas.”
Schroeder and his wife recently had their first baby, a girl. Directing a play about death while bringing life into the world was a profound experience, he said, and it helped connect him with the script.
“Grief is really hard, and it can have a way of disconnecting you from the world,” he said. “What I love about this piece is that it reformulates the concepts of faith and salvation as essentially social acts—the practice of trust, love, and care between people—rather than the work of some transcendental force.”
Butler recently spent several hours with the girl and found the experience joyful and life-affirming – a real gift. Or, as he might say, a visible patch of light.
“She may be the last baby I’ll ever hold,” he said. “I walked around with her while she was sleeping and fell in love with this little baby.”
Maureen Butler cherishes those moments, and she accepts that her questions about what happens next, more than 50 years after she started asking them, will remain unanswered.
“It’s so hard to say goodbye to people,” she said. “They’re not just going on a trip — they’re gone.”
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