Wooden Nickels

Niki Patton (top left), Jacque Arend, Alison Hammond, Debra Rich Gettleman (bottom left) and Howard Silverman

Devorah Medwin has always been intrigued by topics deemed taboo.

“How do we talk about what people don’t want to talk about? That piece is fascinating to me because it creates so much tsuris,” she said.

So, she wrote a play dedicated to helping families navigate end-of-life decisions, hoping to diminish their sense of woe.

“Wooden Nickels” was her graduate school thesis in 2000. It has morphed over time, and debuted as a mixed-reality theatre experience at Temple Chai’s Deutsch Family Shalom Center in 2009. Actors portray real-life scenarios and resolutions.

Medwin and the play have strong Phoenix ties, and the Center for Senior Enrichment, sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Service, put the three-part play on Zoom in early December.

“I thought it would be very beneficial to offer this to my participants, because everyone could get something out of it,” said Jennifer Brauner, CSE’s director. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced all in-person events to be canceled in the spring of 2020, Brauner developed virtual programming. “With my program being on Zoom for over a year, you would think I’d be losing people, but I’m actually gaining people.” An interactive play ensures that the audience is engaged, she said.

During the play’s first segment, Dec. 1, the audience is privy to a Zoom call between a mother and her three daughters. The mother’s health is declining and the characters explore 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.

“There’s not really any role modeling that we get to see because we’re not in each other’s houses,” Medwin said. “This kind of gives us the Zoom peek into another family’s conversation.”

New York-based psychologist Dale Atkins led a breathing exercise and talked about managing stress afterward.

The play continued on Dec. 8, and Dr. Howard Silverman, a Phoenix-area family practitioner, joined the characters to help them hear each other and come to terms with the decisions they made.

The final act will be Dec. 15. Audience members will take part in facilitated breakout sessions to discuss what they experienced during the first two segments and learn tools to ease the burden of difficult conversations.

It was important to Medwin to create a theatre experience that included clinicians. She wanted conversations about aging and the end of life to come from an emotional place, rather than an intellectual one.

Silverman, who is now a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix, told Jewish News that people often don’t know how to have these conversations.

“Usually, when you talk with people individually in a family, they all want to talk about it. But when you get them in the same room, nobody wants to talk about it,” he said.

Ruth Poles can relate. She is one of about 45 people who registered to watch the three-part play.

“I haven’t had ‘the conversation’ with my children,” she told Jewish News. She’s been anxious about the idea of it. Watching “Wooden Nickels,” though, has helped her figure things out.

Following the Dec. 8 performance, Poles reached out to her oldest daughter about having the conversation, and her daughter was receptive.

“I have been so immersed and so affected, in a positive way,” she said.

When Brauner was first approached about doing this program, “it really hit home.”

Her father passed away last year. Even though her family was more prepared, she could still relate to the play’s theme. “That was part of the reason why I was so passionate about bringing it to my community at the Center for Senior Enrichment,” she said.

In a strange twist, everything that happened in the play ended up happening to Medwin’s family a few years after she wrote it. “My mother started to lose her memory after I had written this play about Alzheimer’s,” she said. She was surprised to still go through all the emotional turmoil despite what she had learned from researching her play.

“What matters is actually having the practice — being able to rehearse having those hard conversations,” she said. “At the end of the day, it turns out not to be about knowledge; it turns out to actually be about the heart connection, about going into the hard places.” JN

To receive a guide of local resources for aging and end-of-life issues, contact Jennifer Brauner at Jennifer.Brauner@jfcsaz.org.