Two Excerpts from 5 Stages of Grief – A Work For Theatre by Lizzie Olesker


Me                             50’s playwright
Leah                          50’s white, daughter
Jess                            40’s white, neighbor
Bev                            50’s black, Home Care Aide
Judith                        90’s white, client
Mom                         80’s, real

For Elaine, brightest star.


We are in a place between.

A stage – a frame- inside of which we’re making this play.

This space is Judith’s apartment. It’s also Beverly’s workplace- a place of hidden labor. A domestic space signified by a few elements: a bed, a lamp, a tray, maybe a chair, which Beverly moves on and off the stage. Things might stand in for other things- a glass of water might provide sounds of a bath where Beverly cleans Judith; the lamp becomes the moon outside Judith’s apartment window. Later, the space becomes a snowy street in the Bronx- a place between those who are here and those who are gone, between what’s real and what we imagine.

The writer (Me) is always present at the edge of the frame, watching and recording, maybe at a table with her laptop, trying to document a reality, an experience that maybe reflects her own. She has many questions: about aging, about care giving, about identity and theater making- and also, grief.

Time is fluid, moving between the past and the present. Words overlap and conversations erupt and disappear quickly, amidst the silences

What begins as a play exploring the unseen, intimate labor of care is sharply interrupted- from the audience maybe- until everything disappears behind an endless gray sky, somewhere between there and here.



                 (Me enters)
Okay, 4:18 PM-
I’m sitting in another café-
cloudy not hot not cold-
trying to-
trying to- say what- to
write. This-
trying to
concentrate- write- say-
not listen to that person talking- say-
take a sip- piece of gum? say-
not look at phone- okay-
put things into some kind of order- okay-
thoughts ideas words the story begins here and goes here and then and then- say-
and then what? (nothing)
stop look around (nothing)
okay bathroom break- say-
nothing let it go
why the why the why bother? Let it-
because she- of her- she would-
let it go. But-
she would have wanted me to- she would say:
aren’t you done with that thing- that play- yet?
this is for her, then. this- thing. for you, even though you’re- today’s the day, in fact. Exactly one year in- no, out. In. Gone. Fact. Since— There are 5 stages of grief. Okay- One.

(A door opens- very bright light from a building’s hallway. Jess, a neighbor, is there- holding a covered dish.)

Um, hello?
               (Leah appears.)

Oh, hi I just wanted to-
hello- I’m- oh, just to- say…


I live next door- lived- to your mother- Uh, anything – I can –

It’s okay really

If you need – I’m- next door-
It must be hard—

Not really. It’s actually not.


And Bev is still here — the aide…Well she’s out right now- but she’ll be back.

Oh- it’s- it feels cold

Beverly opened all the windows


So my mother could leave. Her spirit…

Oh… Is that like a thing?

Like a what?

Like a religious- spiritual thing?

Bev said she heard it from a Slovakian.

Oh god… people believe all kinds of things- you know, at that- you know- uh moment of…

You mean the moment of death?

I should go-

I saw a hawk.


Earlier. Behind the building.

Really- are you sure?


I’ve heard they can survive- they live in the park, or something…

I saw all these feathers- or maybe it was fur- on the ground, below the back apartment window. And it was there- big, brown- just sitting there- with all these- pieces. Not a whole carcass, but just small- like, these shreds of raw, red meat- everywhere.

Ugh that’s disgusting—

It had to be a hawk-

Please stop-

What else could it be?


It suddenly took off, its wings were like this (holds her arms wide)– absolutely huge.

Maybe we should call someone-

All the meat stayed- is still there.

The fire- or health department-?

And then last night, after- you know- I couldn’t sleep. But then I did and… I saw a swan curled up on the book shelf- its neck was broken. And a girl- it didn’t look like my daughter- she came over to me and her shirt was unbuttoned. I could feel her hair against my cheek when I hugged her. It was very wispy. She was sad and then suddenly very, very old. I was trying to turn her, on the bed, and her back was covered in blood and feathers… and you could hear tiny bones breaking. And then I woke up.

* * *

Okay, let’s go back to before- a few scenes- days, no hours- before?
And here’s Beverly on the way to work now- then, on bus, on the way to her shift with Judith Cohen before she… Beverly’s falling asleep- exhausted from her job with another client the night before- but she’s still awake- her mind’s racing- she’s-
Look at how
this ankle’s swelling up
this body creaks
you know
like when a tree sways
or a bad door
you know, rusty gate
engine slows down
weird eye sound when you rub it
and the floor of that
old house
remember those crooked stairs
finger on metal doorknob
always so cold
or that part of the wall where
you could see where
a shoulder or
hand would
rub up against it day after day
windows streaked with something
but still the sun came in
so long ago that house
but here
in this apartment
the rooms dark,
dust and cat hair settles in a corner
couch and chair covers
like old skin, dried and wrinkly
try turning on another light
looking through cold glass at a cloudy night sky
Beverly leads 92-year old Judith Cohen on stage, sets her up in a bed, etc., as she’s speaking.

Remembering the sharp edge
of the plastic knife against the Styrofoam box
holding fried rice (bits of pork and carrot cubes sad peas)
I get it to go
each night my shift starts at
and I give her
her dinner I warm up her frozen thing
or make her an egg
in between I take
a bite of fried rice only it’s cold now
but I don’t care cause I’m just hungry (always hungry)
put more in, faster
Take the spade in your hand and let the
rocks fall on top, stare at shoes
rain comes and some people
throw a flower in
into the hole
doesn’t’ have any sound
until the rocks go
on top
falling onto her
echo on empty box
are you in it or maybe you
flown away
Gone but not gone
not hiding inside
a knife could cut through
slide through my throat and in the ground
she says to me when I bring her the tray
when I try to put the pillow behind her
tiny, razor thin back
she says-

And I don’t want to be buried
I want to be burned
until there’s nothing left of me
just ashes
and then I want them to take
what’s left and throw it somewhere
into an ocean, bay, pond
trips to Shelter Island, Catskills, Arizona
I don’t know
another place where the sun’s bright
a sound of something else
gulls or wind or whatever
brings a good feeling at the end
tell them please.
But for now, make sure make sure of what… what was I saying?

Beverly suddenly drops the tray, falls to the floor.

Really? (Shit…)
          (CRASH- Bev falls. Blackout. Shift.)

(Reading from a small computer screen, lit by its glow:)
“Employment of home health aides and personal care aides is projected to grow 41 percent in the next 10 years, much faster than the average for all occupations. As the baby boom population ages and elderly population grows, demand for services of home health and personal care aides will continue to increase. “

Beverly had been working as a home care aide for the last 12 years when she suddenly collapsed. It was lucky that she fell where she did, and in the way that she did, on Judith Cohen’s thick bedroom carpet. She was holding a tray with a plastic plate with one scrambled egg, some cooked peas and a cup of lukewarm tea, for Judith who sat propped up on her bed with several old pillows, waiting. Judith wasn’t looking at the doorway or at Beverly as she entered the room. Did she fall over some things piled on the floor? Did her knees just seem to give way? Does she hit her head on the side of Mrs. Cohen’s large wooden bureau? (Oh-please no. )

ME (swipes screen, reads:)
“There are more than 2.1 million home care workers in the United States. The home care workforce has more than doubled in size in the last 10 years….Healthcare is the fastest growing employment sector in the US.

Judith Cohen has trouble hearing, was facing the other way, maybe? Looking out her window- at the little piece of sky she sees between two buildings, getting darker. She thinks of that torn photo either of herself (or her daughter Leah?) as a young baby- fat, alone- in her carriage, and everything looked yellow. A light suddenly clicks on behind the window shade across the way. Judith sees the shadow of something behind the shade- fur moving, teeth, claw- maybe a big tongue-

She blinks and remembers her small dog, Leo. (If only I had him here with me now) and she moves her hand back and forth on the dark blue bedspread like it was his fur.

ME (swipes, reads-)
“One in ten new jobs over the next decade will be in personal and home health care.”

My one and only lover boy, she thinks and pulls on his ear, which is really the corner of her blanket.

ME (closer to screen, glow deepens)
“One in four of the direct care workers in the nation’s nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home care agencies are foreign born. There’s a so-called ‘care giving gap’ filled by immigrants.”

There we were, Beverly on the floor and Judith Cohen in her bed, lying so still as the light of the late afternoon disappears, moving somewhere below this old building to—

“On average, home care workers’ wages have barely risen over the past 10 years. Personal Care aides have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.”

-underground wires, pipes, further down past rocks and crushed stones, past pieces of bone to a place we can’t see.

Who am I, writing this? These words, gestures… For a 92 year old woman who will die in the next few weeks. For a 54 year old home care aide.
How do I know these women- how they live, much less feel and think?
My imagining them, and what they say- is this a form of appropriation?
And to what end? Who am I, writing this? And…what happens next? Something like:

The doorbell rings or the phone- who’s calling?
Or it doesn’t and they continue to lie there, the clock ticking
or not , the night light flickers, or not

Time moves forward and Judith Cohen goes backwards
Beverly feels time move somewhere to the side.

I just have to move, get myself up, otherwise…
And then everything goes black and I hear something like thousands of gallons of water rushing through a tunnel, down a sewer, getting closer and closer. It was the way it went during that hurricane when no one could get home. When the stairs- the entrance to the subway was a seismic waterfall. Nothing made sense and you wondered how long it would be till you were floating… (pause) Judith – Ms Cohen?! You there?

What- who is that?

Ms Cohen it’s me, Beverly. I’m down here. I must’ve-

This can’t be right. I can’t be hearing you. Dreaming again

I fell. I’ve- fallen.

Last night, I saw smoke and my daughter came in, asking me to take her to my funeral. She wore a cape. Very disturbing.

(quietly) Let myself just be here… and breathe.

There are more who are dead than alive now. So many- you think they’re waiting for me?

Hissing. Air. Clock sound… a kind of music. It’s just the two of them in this tiny world governed by Judith Cohen’s needs and Beverly trying to fill them.

It’s my job, okay?

Bev sees them all waiting- all her clients- to be washed and dressed, given their meals, toenails clipped, waiting to be helped out of bed. Taken to the bathroom. Nightgown lifted. TV channel changed. There must be hundreds, thousands right at this moment- in their rooms, on chairs, beds, couches, waiting.

But who’s going to come take care of me?

Judith stirs in her bed, and feels like she has to go pee. She just lets it go in her pull up- relief and shame at the same time… Beverly thinks she sees the moon rising high above the building.
But wait. Let’s keep going back… further.
To a few days earlier.
           (Bev gets up/shifts things-it’s another room.)


Okay- break! Stop- everything.

Okay. I tried to write a play about an elderly woman and her home care aide but I kept coming back to my own mother- in fact,
she’s here.
That’s right- here. Now.
This is really her- no costume, no wig, no nothing.
Not a character in the play but the actual person, my actual mother.
Right ma?


It’s her presence here that’s what matters.
Her skin.
The way she’s breathing.
I’m letting her just be here—it’s not like her to be so quiet.
She’s usually much more of an extrovert-
Well, not exactly. More like she wants to be seen. And she wants your enthusiastic approval. Please give it to her, if you can. It keeps her going.

They say everyone has to write their mother play.

This isn’t mine. Believe me. I can’t- not yet.

So, I’m going to just bring her up here now. Like on the David Letterman show- remember how he used to bring his mother onto the show? It was the funniest thing ever because she was so unfunny. He was working so hard- telling jokes, making fun- but she didn’t even have to do anything. She was just who she was- David’s mom- as regular as can be.

(A light comes up on Mom, sitting in the audience.)

I never want to hurt you.

I always want to please you. Maybe that should stop? I’m going to edit this out now.

For the record.

This isn’t a play about my mother. I am not Leah. My mother is not Judith Cohen. And she did not have a Beverly in her life. Not exactly.

I wanted to make this more about Beverly, about a woman who provides paid home care to the elderly. Do I know enough about a woman like Beverly to write her, really?

(Beverly enters.)

Bev enters, looks at everything and everyone.

And then what? Maybe a blackout. Maybe something else happens in that blackout. In the dark. Or maybe there’s a little light from somewhere. You know, like there’s a sliver of light from under a door. Or the light from the booth bleeds onto the stage- no- or there’s a blue wash that’s supposed to be the darkness of the night in Judith Cohen’s apartment- or in my mother’s room… that weird light that she says she sees when she wakes up in the middle of the night and says that she sees words written in smoke on the wall across from her bed…What are you talking about ma? There’s no such thing.

Lizzie Olesker is a Brooklyn based writer/director/performer whose plays and performances explore the poetry of everyday experience. Her work has been developed and seen in NYC at New Georges, Dixon Place, Ohio Theater, Clubbed Thumb, the Cherry Lane, Invisible Dog, and Public Theater. Recently, with film maker /poet Lynne Sachs, she wrote and co-directed the award-winning hybrid documentary film, The Washing Society, about the work of doing laundry. She teaches at the New School and NYU on the adjunct faculty, and is active with her adjunct union.

Banner Image: Discourse by Robert Frede Kenter

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