Sue Trerise Adamson was not able to have a funeral for her husband, Joe, who died of complications from COVID-19 when they were on vacation in Portugal in April, 2020. He was 69 years old.
Restrictions in the weeks and months after his passing made it impossible. And so her grief clung to her. But earlier this month, surrounded by friends and family in a small theatre in Hamilton, Ms. Trerise Adamson was finally able to say goodbye in an event that blurred the line between theatre and memorial service. When it ended, she wept.
Sitting in the dark along with approximately 70 people – friends from her swim team, Joe’s tennis buddies, members of his faculty from McMaster University where he was a professor of English and comparative literature – Ms. Trerise Adamson watched Viaticum, a play inspired by her and her husband’s relationship and Joe’s death from a virus that has so far killed more than 30,000 Canadians.
“My sister was sitting behind me and we were both sobbing,” says Ms. Trerise Adamson, who lives in Dundas, Ont.
How we say goodbye to loved ones who have died from COVID-19 has been painfully complicated by pandemic restrictions, and as a result so too has the ways in which we process the inestimable grief of our loss. The play was the perfect way to honour her husband, Ms. Trerise Adamson says. And the creative team behind it says that while it is deeply personal, it also holds out the promise of catharsis for everyone who has been dealing with loss these long nearly two years.
“It’s a story that I think will resonate with so many, because COVID, because death, because it’s a love story, because of how many millions of people around the world have lost loved ones,” says Kelly Daniels, who wrote the play.
The title, Viaticum, is a term for the Eucharist administered to someone who is dying.
Ms. Daniels came across the word while reading an obituary for Mr. Adamson.
In the spring of 2020, with theatres closed, Ms. Daniels, a long-time director, producer and theatre teacher, turned to writing as a creative outlet. She had begun writing a play about a woman in isolation when she learned of Mr. Adamson’s passing.
Ms. Daniels’s husband had been friends with Ms. Trerise Adamson since high school. After reaching out to offer her condolences, she quickly adapted the play she was writing to make it about Sue and Joe.
Using her theatre connections, she cast Seana McKenna and Joseph Ziegler of the Stratford Festival Company in the lead roles and convinced actor and director Kelli Fox to direct.
Ms. Fox was eager to be on board, seeing in the material something both personal and universal.
“This is a play about loss,” she says. “We have to acknowledge that something is gone, something has shifted, and I think that’s what this play really, really speaks to.”
As the play opens, Kate and Pete, thinly veiled stand-ins for Sue and Joe, have returned from their trip to Portugal. Pete is suffering from long COVID, while Kate is struggling to write a newspaper article about her COVID-19 story.
They squabble over Kate’s inability to face what needs to be faced in order to write the article. They recount the details of their courtship and marriage. They dance to Frank Sinatra, Joe’s favourite artist since he was a teenager, until finally the big reveal is revealed. It ends the way funerals do, with a eulogy.
“It was a very meta, kind of strange experience to be there at what was really a memorial service,” Ms. Fox says of watching the play earlier this month.
Although inspired by Joe and Sue’s story, the play is not entirely biographical.
“I had to take dramatic licence because it needs to be a piece of theatre,” Ms. Daniels says.
In blending the real and the fictional, the play paid tribute to her husband in just the way he would have wanted, Ms. Trerise Adamson says.
“He was a literature professor. He’s about the stories. He always felt that stories were the basis of our connection as humans,” she says.
Both Ms. Daniels and Ms. Fox hope to stage the play in Toronto in the new year, although the plans have yet to be worked out.
While the play is a “tribute to the two of them and their story,” Ms. Daniels says she hopes it will find new audiences in the future who, like Ms. Trerise Adamson, have needed for so long to process their grief.
The story of COVID-19 is continuing, seemingly endless. Art, particularly the shared experience of theatre, is one of the best ways to make sense of that story and to process its attendant loss, Ms. Fox says.
“There is that kind of moment of communal mourning that we have to do,” she says. “We have a different world now than we had. We have to acknowledge what’s different and mourn what we’ve lost and then move on with what we can do from here.”
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