It’s a play that the writer describes as “like a Shakespeare hoedown that might make you cry.” It is called “The Heath” and it tells the story of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s own grandfather alongside the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, who famously went mad.
And on top of that, she plays the banjo.
Her grandfather, who she describes as having grown up "the poorest of the poor" in rural South Carolina before fighting in World War II, began showing symptoms of Alzheimer's later in life.
“I started to lose my grandfather before he was gone," Gunderson says, "and that reminded me of King Lear."
The playwright began a process of "rediscovering" her grandfather and learned more about his service in the war — a time they never spoke about as a family.
"He was a POW," she says. "He was taken to a camp in Germany and liberated by the Russians, but without any help. So he had to find his way from Germany all the way to Odessa, Russia, on foot to come back to who would be his wife, my grandmother."
"It was through writing this play to honor him, to understand him, to find him," Gunderson explains, "that I discovered this incredible hero that I have as a grandfather."
The tragedy of King Lear enters Gunderson's telling of the story not only through the king's madness but through the characters of his daughters, who betray him.
"I try to acknowledge that I probably wasn’t a great granddaughter to him," Gunderson says. "I used to write him a lot of postcards, but I stopped writing because he didn’t know who I was anymore. There's a line in the play that says, 'When you stop writing, you should start showing up,' and I didn’t do that. That will be something that I’m dealing with in the show."
Gunderson also picked up the banjo in this quest to honor her grandfather, who loved bluegrass music. The show includes a few original songs. Between performing her own music and being alone onstage, delivering her own story, she admits that she is doing this show "because I'm scared of it."
"It felt like, frankly, the way to apologize and honor my grandfather. Getting up and saying out loud, 'this is my grandfather, this is my story,' there is this remarkable magic that theater has, allowing us to know ourselves as we are performing. This is a story that I need to tell. I have to say this. It's really about how we say goodbye to someone when they're already gone."
Gunderson performs “The Heath” at Synchronicity Theatre, tonight at 8 p.m.