When playwright Devorah Medwin started writing “Wooden Nickels” in graduate school, “I was just happy that a character had come and that I could take dictation of what they had to say,” she said.
It was only after she began to dig deeper, researching end-of-life care and attending events for caregivers and dementia patients, that she saw how difficult conversations around death and dying really were.
“You can’t really just hand somebody a brochure on such a large life issue and think that you can really swallow it,” Medwin said.
The play that followed is an exploration of what it means to be a caregiver, what responsibilities children have toward their parents and how to plan for death while preserving a person’s dignity and quality of life.
The Nov. 8 production of “Wooden Nickels” will not only bring together partners from the world of theater, death literacy and Jewish education, including Bevival, Collaboration LABS, the Arizona Actors Academy, the Bureau of Jewish Education, and Temple Chai; it also honors Elisa Lanes Caring Community at Temple Chai. Named for Medwin’s sister Elisa Lanes, who was an active participant in the program until she died of leukemia in 2009, the Caring Community is composed of almost 100 volunteers trained to offer support not only during moments of loss and grief, but also during moments of joy and life transition. Whenever a member of Temple Chai is in need of support, “the clergy, of course responds to the individual, and we also assign a congregant who can then follow up and be supportive and engaged and just another touchstone,” said Temple Chai's Rabbi Bonnie Koppell.
For Medwin, a performance of “Wooden Nickels” was the perfect way to honor both her sister and the Caring Community that bears her name.
“One of the things that my sister really believed was how important the arts are to the healing process, to these kinds of conversations,” Medwin said. “So it seemed like what a beautiful way to shine light on and honor her and the Caring Community, by bringing "Wooden Nickels" back to Temple Chai.”
While the play has evolved over the years the core of the story remains focused on those questions about death that many people avoid talking about until they’re forced to.
For Temple Chai, hosting “Wooden Nickels” falls right in line with a history of programs at the Deutsch Family Shalom Center, including Death Cafe, the Last Chapter and the Conversation Project, that were designed to help people feel comfortable discussing death and end-of-life care.
“One of the things that I have worked hard at over the last number of years is really encouraging people to think about end of life issues before they become a necessity in the moment,” Koppell said.
While she hopes that some viewers will come away from the experience with a starting place to talk about death, Medwin also emphasized that the play can be viewed purely as entertainment. “People can really experience it in whatever way suits them,” she said.
The era of COVID-19 also forced Medwin and the actors to make some changes to the play. While it is originally set on a beach, depicted with three beach chairs and an empty stage, the conversation has been adapted to the current virtual environment to be a Zoom call between mother and daughters. Medwin herself was surprised and impressed by how well the new setting works, in part because it reflects the reality of many family conversations and lifecycle events taking place today.
“It seems right to bring this into a medium that we are all using now, to have these conversations and to be able to come together as a community,” Medwin said. JN