Dan, and the Permutations of Hope
By Steven Leigh Morris
Director Dan Bonnell and I were called into a second meeting concerning my play about the press, Red Ink, on Monday night at Sacred Fools Theatre, with the theater’s artistic board, Bryan Bellomo, Scott Leggett and Danielle Ozymandias, as well as the company member, Vanessa Stewart, who was championing the play for production at her theater.
To give some context, Vanessa and I had been called into an initial meeting a month prior. This was followed by a hastily called cold-reading for the company a couple of weeks later, followed by the meeting on Monday night with Dan.
Yet more context: Dan and I had been working on the play for years – refining it, shopping it around theaters. So it was quite a moment when we both learned that we’d found a champion in Vanessa who was as enthusiastic about the work as we were.
We’d been given a fair amount of false hope. In a similar cold-reading of the play at a different theater, the artistic director went into ecstasies about the play’s quality and relevance. That theater then brought in Dan for a more rehearsed public reading, after which one audience member went up to the artistic director and said, “You’ve got to produce this play!”
So to say that we were both skeptical would be an understatement. Such are the permutations of hope.
Back at Sacred Fools, after I’d opined about the most recent changes I’d made to the play, Dan, whom the theater didn’t really know, went into high gear explaining his approach to the play, why he loved it, how he would approach its many layers. There was animation, humor and laughter in the room.
Dan cut his teeth in theaters such as New York’s Circle Rep, home to the late playwright Lanford Wilson. Dan explained how the theater leaned towards Wilson’s lyric realism, while Dan, as a director in that Circle, was an outlier, preferring the kind of larger social context and ribald theatricality evident in Red Ink. Dan was lucid, Dan was cogent, Dan was on fire. And then Dan paused.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not . . . Something’s going on. I’m not feeling well at all.”
Somebody offered him a cup of water, which he accepted. I commented that the theater was perhaps a bit warm. Dan sipped from the water before continuing with his explanation with striking calm:
“My right arm has gone completely numb. I think I’m having a stroke.”
Without missing a beat, somebody offered to call 911.
“Yes,” Dan replied. “I think this is serious.”
With his one working hand, Dan pulled out his cellphone and struggled to find the code to open it. “I’ve got to call my wife,” he said, but he couldn’t remember the code to open his phone. He understood that time was now of the essence, as he was slowly losing memory, losing control. His good hand was trembling. He muttered curses under his breath. A kind of jaw-dropped panic enveloped the room: Not an iota of hysteria, but a stoic, silent realization that something was going terribly, tragically wrong.
I offered to call his wife, Lea, on my phone if he could simply recite the number. Dan got through eight digits, but couldn’t come up with the last two – at which time he had opened his phone and dialed Lea’s number on speed-dial. She picked right up, a small, great mercy for both of them. I held the phone up to Dan’s ear, and he struggled to speak to her as his diction was growing slurred.
When I took back the phone, I was explaining to her what was unfolding when we could hear the sirens of the LAFD ambulance and a fire truck pulling into Lillian Way. They’d arrived within two minutes of the summons.
The medics understood immediately what was happening and slapped an oxygen mask onto Dan’s face, while running a battery of tests. He told them he’d had a heart attack four years prior, and that he was on blood thinners from that event. This was to be the medicine that would compound the damage being inflicted by the blood vessel that had burst in his brain. The blood simply wouldn’t clot, and kept leaking.
“A massive bleed,” as various nurses would later describe it.
As the medics packed Dan into the ambulance, he was beginning to suffer seizures. After they whisked him to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, the five of us stood around together in the theater, shell-shocked. We hugged. Bryan suggested we all “go away . . . I mean you’re welcome to stay here, but maybe we need to re-center.”
I said I thought I should go to the hospital, at least until Lea showed up. And that’s what I did.
Lea arrived with a friend. Dan was upstairs having tests run. The terror of the situation was obvious, countered by attempts at humor:
“When you see your husband, when he regains consciousness, can you tell him I’m not going to work with him if he keeps having strokes in the middle of important meetings. It sets such a bad tone.”
Lea had the good grace to laugh out loud. She is the embodiment of grace.
At 5 a.m., she said later, they started the procedure to drain some of the blood from Dan’s brain. By the time he was transferred to USC’s Keck Hospital, he was “unresponsive.” Even his breathing was dependent on a ventilator.
Lea said she was struck by the dire tone of the nurses, though she’s fully aware that they are trained not to give hope to the family, as protection from potential liability – an unfortunate policy given how the only source of sanity for families in such circumstances is hope.
Within 48 hours of the trauma, Dan was capable of breathing on his own. His daughter Katie, who had flown in from New York, now whispered into Dan’s ear that she loved him, and a tear formed in his eye. The next day, Lea said, a doctor had instructed Dan to wiggle his fingers. His thumb moved slightly. As the doctor walked away, two fingers were moving.
I later asked a nurse about this. She told me that until Dan does that repeatedly, they can’t affirm that he’s “responding.” But of course he is.
I visited on Wednesday, when Lea and Katie were both with Dan. Only two visitors are allowed at a time, so Katie and I were leaning over Dan on opposite sides of his bed. I told him to cut this shit out, that we have a play to do. “It’s time to get with the program,” I said.
Katie smiled and gently whispered, “You’re getting with the program, daddy. We’re so proud of you. You’re doing so well.”
I recalled from earlier conversations with Dan how proud he was of Katie, whom I met for the first time at his hospital bed. He’d regaled me with the stories of them looking for a college for her to attend, how she’d gotten into and now graduated from Columbia. How could any father not be proud to have reared such a daughter? – not just because of her accomplishments but because of the quality of her character. A chip off the old block.
Bryan later wrote me how, at that cursed meeting, he’d found Dan to be smart and decent. Yes, exactly.
That night made me realize what we’ve been fighting for, as a community. Our humanity. Sometimes blood vessels burst when we all least expect it. How we respond defines who we are.
Lea and Katie believe with unwavering conviction that Dan will recover. They are not stupid. They are not naïve. They know exactly what they’re up against. They see incremental, early signs of hope, and they go from there.
We are fighting for the best in all of us. We are fighting to do the work that’s most meaningful for us. We are praying. Some are chanting. We are fighting the odds. We are fighting for miracles.