Gail Sheehy: Another Difficult Passage

Gail Sheehy at 91 Guild Hall Awards
Gail Sheehy

    Gail Sheehy, the well-known author of “Passages,” among other books, has given life to a subject most often associated with death. Her latest work is not in book form; it is a workshop theater piece being produced at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday night at 8. “Chasing the Tiger” details Ms. Sheehy’s 17 years of caretaking for her husband, the late Clay Felker, an editor of New York magazine and Esquire, during his battle with cancer.
“The tiger is what you are most afraid of,” said Ms. Sheehy. “At one point, we saw a Chinese doctor. He said it was an old Chinese proverb: ‘When chasing a tiger, one must run very fast.’ ”
How did Ms. Sheehy decide to put her words on stage? “I was studying playwrighting for about five years while Clay was ill,” she said. “It’s always been a passion of mine.” But it was only after Mr. Felker’s death in 2008 that Ms. Sheehy felt as if she was “writing a true story about it.”
“Chasing the Tiger” is the outcome of an earlier, more fictional incarnation that Ms. Sheehy presented, “with Jill Clayburgh playing me,” Ms. Sheehy said. “Nobody knew that she was sick at the time.” Ms. Clayburgh, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1978 film “An Unmarried Woman,” died last year.
“I don’t think there’s really a good death,” Ms. Sheehy said. “But thereare better deaths than others. Going back and forth between the emergency room and the hospital is no way to go.”
    Ms. Sheehy has become an advocate for caregivers over the past four or five years. She penned an article on the subject for Parade Magazine in 2007. “Who cares for the caregivers? At that time, there was little recognition of family caregivers, and it’s a lonely journey,” she told The Star.
    These days, she said, there are more lifelines available to the caregiver, “and a lot more recognition.” Her appearances on “The Today Show,” with Meredith Viera — who is a caregiver for her own husband, Richard Cohen — and on “The Diane Rehm Show” on National Public Radio, have helped give voice to the mostly low-profile caregiving population.
    “It’s still a semi-toxic subject,” Ms. Sheehy said.
    However, as more baby boomers who were at the forefront of the women’s movement take on the role — whether for parents, partners, or friends — the caretaker herself is becoming an archetype of this decade. And men are not an exception.
    During her telephone interview, Ms. Sheehy was in Palm Beach, Florida, and had just given a talk at Alzheimer’s Community Care, a not-for-profit organization of which Ms. Sheehy is a huge fan.
    “It’s the only dementia-specific non-profit day care in the country,” she said. “Palm Beach County alone serves over 60,000 dementia patients. This is a model that should be replicated across the country. They do it right,” she said with emphasis.
    Ms. Sheehy’s relationship to the East End is bittersweet. The house she shared with Mr. Felker for 30 years on Baiting Hollow Road in East Hampton, “where we entertained children, grandchildren, friends,” had to be sold in 2007, “as a consequence of the cost of taking care of my husband.” Ms. Sheehy now rents a house in Sag Harbor.
    When Ms. Sheehy submitted her play to Murphy Davis, the artistic director of the Bay Street Theatre, it was to get some possible casting ideas. When Mr. Davis read the play, he immediately thought of presenting it as part of “The Workshops,” a series underwritten by the Lucille Lortel Foundation.
    “I pictured Victor Slezak as Clay,” Mr. Davis said. And Mr. Slezak will indeed portray Mr. Felker.
    J. Smith Cameron will appear on the stage Saturday as Ms. Sheehy.
    Asking Jack Hofsiss, who has directed many a show at Bay Street — and who won a Tony Award for directing “The Elephant Man” on Broadway — was a no-brainer for Mr. Davis. “I thought he was perfect for it,” he said. “He knows what it’s like to deal with challenges in life, meeting them headon but knowing also how to accept.” In 1985, Mr. Hofsiss suffered a spinal-cord injury while diving into a pool.
    “This is a very nontraditional structure,” Mr. Davis said of the play. “And Jack thinks outside the box.”
    “This addresses a very personal issue,” he continued, touching on his own journey in caregiving. “The focus is so often on the person with the disease, and rightly so, but the caregiver frequently goes without the attention they need. We’re excited to offer this opportunity to premiere Gail’s work.”
    Ms. Sheehy also expressed excitement about seeing her words take life on Saturday. “Theater is a very spiritual place,” she said. “It’s my church, it’s where I go to heal.”
    Tickets are available at the Bay Street box office in Sag Harbor (725-9500) or at the theater’s Web site, baystreet.org.