Hannah Daly and Janice Gardner
Hannah Daly, in the bed, and Janice Gardner in David Butler's "Dying to Know," at Mad Horse Theatre Company in South Portland. (Courtesy MHTC/Sokvonny Chhouk)
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Maura (Janice Gardner) is of the Dylan Thomas school when it comes to death: she rages, rages against it. She fumbles and chafes against the soothing proprieties of the hospice center where she volunteers.

Having lost everyone in her family, Maura has a definite death thing – a fury, a fear, and an obsession about what follows. And she’s surprised that Caroline (Hannah Daly), a young hospice “guest” near the end of her road with terminal cancer, doesn’t feel the same.   

Maura’s self-searching story, catalyzed through her friendship with Caroline, centers “Dying to Know,” a comedic drama written by local actor and playwright David Butler. Mad Horse Theatre Company stages a loving production of this beautiful work through Dec. 12, under the direction of Nick Schroeder, with a film of the production expected to be released in January.

Janice Gardner
Janice Gardner as Maura in “Dying to Know,” at Mad Horse Theatre Company. (Courtesy MHTC/Sokvonny Chhouk)

“Dying to Know” began 10 years ago based on the experiences of Butler, a longtime pastor and hospital chaplain – as well as a beloved member of the theater community – and a man who is now fighting cancer himself. This superbly acted production, by turns funny, moving, and wrenching, is lit from within by Butler’s wisdom and humor.

The show’s two women could not be any more different in attitude and bodily presence. 

Maura enters Caroline’s room with palpable nervous energy, constantly positioning and repositioning herself. Her introduction to Caroline becomes a monologue of twitchy, self-conscious correction.

“You’re my first dying person,” she says by way of explanation and apology – then gasps, winces, crumbles. “Oh god,” she says, stricken. “I’m certainly not supposed to say that.”  

As a perfect counterpoint, Caroline, in Daly’s gently ironic portrayal, is slow-moving or else fully still, and speaks in a low, laconic monotone. Her gaze at Maura is steady, bemused.

“I’m dying,” she says unceremoniously. “It’s just another thing that happens to you.” 

But Caroline actually takes pleasure in Maura’s clumsiness, her allergy to the soma-like euphemism and soothing positivity that pervades the hospice staff.

In an especially acute insight from Butler, Caroline has been longing to have a real conversation: after so long fielding people who want the dying woman to talk about her feelings about dying, it’s a relief for Caroline to listen to someone else. 

And so over the course of several monologues, delivered with emotional nuance by Gardner (and with the ever-excellent Paul Haley playing several supporting roles), we hear Maura’s story.

She talks about the deaths of her family; her disdain for the Church and anyone who thinks they know what happens after death; and how her fear of death has affected her romantically. Her emotions change like quicksilver between grief, rage, self-reproach, nostalgia, faux-cheer, and exhaustion, and in her fine portrayal Gardner embodies all of it: we can discern each new feeling altering Maura’s posture, jaw, and eyes as it arises.

Gradually, Maura’s telling comes to enact the timeless function of catharsis. Between this emotional shift and her evolving relationship with Caroline, the conversation about what death is, and does, turns startlingly rich, even profound. 

Maura muses that it’s not the words themselves of, say, the Catholic rites that have meaning; it’s the emotional reassurance they’ve accumulated over centuries of felt use. Caroline and Maura even talk of death as a kind of creative force, a living cultural and spiritual fabric that we weave through farewells, mourning, and remembrance. 

So rich and resonant are these notions in “Dying to Know” that I found myself thinking of another poet, and his proposition that “to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” That’s Whitman, a bard of multitudes, erudition, and a generous, transcendent exuberance – so like Butler himself.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“Dying to Know,” by David Butler. Directed by Nick Schroeder. Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland, through Dec. 12. Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination required. FMI: www.madhorse.com.