POWNAL — The tin shears fell from a second-story roof, and their rubber handles struck Callie Kimball on the right side of her head, forcing her upper torso to torque left.

Kimball, a playwright from Brunswick, was lucky she was spared the sharp end of the shears, but the traumatic brain injury she suffered has forced one of Maine’s most accomplished contemporary playwrights to contemplate ending her writing career as it is blossoming.

She used to write three plays a year, but it has taken Kimball three years to finish one since the accident, and she had to give up a big commission from a Broadway producer to write another about her grandparents’ real-life love affair because she could not do the work.

“My imagination is much less rich,” Kimball said. “I started writing when I was 7. I have always had stories in my head. Now I don’t.”

Her latest play, “Perseverance,” which Portland Stage will premiere in September, will likely be her last new play. Instead, Kimball wants to use her skills as a storyteller and educator to help others who have suffered brain injuries to live better and more resilient lives, through workshops and personal coaching – and gardening. As part of her own healing process, she’s learning to grow big, beautiful dahlias on a small garden plot on a friend’s farm in Pownal, because working with her hands in the dirt and learning the rhythms of the season have been good for her body, mind and soul.

Kimball’s dahlias have begun blooming. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If the dahlias work out, she will add the title of gardener to a resume that includes award-winning playwright, teacher and high-achieving academic. A former MacDowell colony fellow with a master’s degree from Hunter College, Kimball closed Thursday on an acre of land in Freeport, where she envisions beginning her own dahlia farm and creating a place where she can lead workshops to help heal others and herself.

“I don’t mean to draw a line in the sand and say I am never (writing another play) again, but I feel like I have something else to offer now. It has taken me a long time to say that. I had to grieve my loss. That was my identity,” she said during a conversation among her flowers, which began blooming a week ago.

“And now it is gone. It is gone. I am not that person anymore, and I have to be OK with that.”

ALREADY ACCOMPLISHED

If this is the end of her writing career, Kimball is bowing out at a time when her plays are getting attention. In addition to Portland Stage taking on “Perseverance” beginning Sept. 29, the Theater at Monmouth this summer is producing a lush version of Kimball’s biographical comedic-drama “Sofonisba,” an older play about the female Italian painter Sofonisba Anguissola. The period piece, set in 16th-century Spain in the court of King Phillip II, has one more performance – at 1 p.m. Saturday – before it closes.

“Perseverance,” commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement in this country and postponed because of the pandemic, tells fictional twin stories from Hillcroft, Maine, of an African-American schoolteacher, writer and suffragist in 1920 and a white school teacher in the same schoolhouse a century later, as she runs for a local political office. Earlier in the pandemic, actress Julianna Marguilies did a remote reading of Kimball’s 2013 play “Alligator Road,” about a Florida woman who confronts her own white privilege, racism and guilt.

Dawn McAndrews, producing artistic director at Monmouth and director of “Sofonisba,” said Kimball’s rich imagination created a range of female characters, both strong and vulnerable, over a writing career that includes nine finished plays.

“She is not writing feminist plays and not necessarily even writing feminist characters, but they either become women who have a strong sense of agency or they become women who are crushed by a lack of it,” McAndrews said.

She thinks Kimball “is getter better and better” as a writer and has much more to say, and hopes she can find a way to create new work that might not involve traditional methods of writing or working with computers. But if she is done, McAndrews said, “She has left us some really great plays and left emerging playwrights some really great examples of how to not overwrite a play.”

Theater critic and poet Megan Grumbling has followed Kimball’s career and reviewed several of her plays. Grumbling, who edits the Deep Water poetry column in the Maine Sunday Telegram, described Kimball as “a writer’s writer,” in an email.

“Her plays are nuanced and layered, with complex characters that are thrilling to explore,” she said. “As a poet, I swoon for language like hers onstage – rich, musical, playful, and uncommon; witty and exquisitely smart, but never pretentious; language that weaves and leaps and sometimes cuts right to the bone.”

Kimball doesn’t know for sure that she’ll never write again, but that’s how she’s feeling now. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

‘INTERIOR EXPERIENCE’

Kimball is among the estimated 1.5 million U.S. citizens who suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, most often caused when people hit their heads during car accidents. Long-term effects might include of loss of cognition, resulting in difficulty learning, memory loss and decision-making, as well compromised communication skills, such as trouble reading, writing and explaining thoughts. Depression and anxiety are common. Kimball experiences many of those symptoms, and others.

She decided to tell her story publicly now, with her plays receiving attention, because she wanted people to understand how debilitating brain injuries can be.

“Everything for the last three years has been so hard, so disheartening and so discouraging. I was high-functioning. I was traveling all over and getting work, and then I lost so much ability,” she said. “And it is very hard for anyone who has not been through it to understand it. It is very isolating to look fine on the outside but have a completely different interior experience.”

And while her decision to stop writing plays may not be a line in the sand, it feels firm to her at this moment, she said, both because of her own challenges and her desire to work with others who have experienced trauma.

It was spring 2018 when the tin shears struck Kimball on the upper right side of her skull and bounced off her shoulder to the ground. She lay down and iced her head immediately – and optimistically told her boyfriend that she felt fine. (Though she later allowed, if she were writing a script about the incident she would have to include a narrator’s voice saying, “She is not fine.”) That night, she became nauseated when she lay on her back and had a headache when she sat up. Her shoulder and ribs hurt, and her body became stiff.

The next morning, her boyfriend served scrambled eggs for breakfast and Kimball struggled to identify the food. “I said, ‘These are really good. What is this called?’ I knew it was a weird question, and I knew it was weird I didn’t know the answer.”

Recognizing signs of a concussion, she called her primary care physician and began a three-year medical journey. She has undergone numerous neuropsychological evaluations to assess how her brain functions and to determine the extent of her lasting cognitive issues, which center around memory. As a writer, she still has her vocabulary, but can’t always access it. During an early neuropsych evaluation, she was asked to name as many animals as she could.

“I said, dog, cat – and then there was a long, long pause, and I said, ‘ocelot.’ The guy cracked up. He said, ‘I have never heard that one. Clearly you have a large vocabulary, but are having a hard time accessing it.’ ”

Her immediate symptoms were headaches, nausea, confusion and extreme fatigue. She couldn’t turn her head much and couldn’t open her jaw all the way for more than one year, making eating uncomfortable. Among the symptoms that followed were days-long crying spells, two seizure-like events and an altered sense of time.

She saw neurologists, neuropsychologists, an occupational and speech therapist, a physical therapist, chiropractors and acupuncturists. Some of the sessions helped, and Kimball, who works as an administrative assistant in the theater department at Bowdoin College, is doing better, but suffers from fatigue and cognitive issues that make screen time an ongoing challenge.

The focus of her recovery has shifted to both managing the symptoms and trying to learn new things, like gardening. Instead of typing, she writes by hand. Kimball’s working memory has improved. Sometimes the words are there, oftentimes they are not.

“It’s a matter or organizing them. I used to carry a story around in my head, and grow it and I could remember characters and arcs and things I definitely wanted to have said, and notes and outlines, and all of it just marinated. I have lost that space in my head to do it,” she said.

She also lost her self-confidence. The injury and the medical bills wiped her out, emotionally and financially. She launched a GoFundMe campaign, which embarrassed her but also helped her realize how many friends she had and how many people cared. Victories came with small rewards.

“I remember being excited when I could finally run errands without GPS,” she said. “That was huge.”

Kimball, who has been gardening in Pownal, plans to start her own dahlia farm in Freeport. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NONLINEAR RECOVERY

Her loss showed up most apparently in her professional work. In 2017, before her accident, Kimball received her first commercial commission from a producer with a history of investing in Broadway shows. The play she was hired to write was based on letters between her paternal grandparents during World War II.

She was writing her first draft when the shears clipped her head, and though she was able to finish, she couldn’t process the feedback that came with the request for revisions.

“All I could do was cut. My 120-page script got down to 66 pages, and that was the best I could do – and I could not imagine writing something new,” she said.

Her script was rejected, and her relationship with the producer severed.

When it came to writing “Perseverance,” Kimball needed help. Todd Brian Backus, dramaturge at Portland Stage and a longtime colleague, offered both feedback and side-by-side support, helping her with ideas and arranging readings with actors so Kimball could hear what she had written. Instead of plotting the arc of her play, she figured it out as she went, with Backus helping to steer.

“In working with her on this piece versus working with her on previous pieces, there has been more ‘Let’s see where this takes us,’ ” Backus said. “But it is still very Callie.”

She began to feel better when she connected with others in her circumstance. Through mutual friends, Kimball reached out to Kim Block, the longtime TV news anchor with WGME, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2019 when she slipped on ice in her driveway. Block’s injury forced her to step down from her anchor-desk position of 39 years. They arranged to meet at Block’s home, and quickly connected.

“It was the first time anyone had walked in to see me and just automatically knew how to behave,” Block said. “She spoke softly, she spoke slowly, and she was constantly looking for signs I might be getting fatigued.”

As professional, driven women dedicated to and known publicly for their accomplishments, they found common ground, and grief, in their similar losses. “There was no way either of us would have willingly walked away or stepped away from our passion,” Block said.

Kimball and Block talk often about the nonlinear path of recovery. It’s a line that is never straight, with many lows and a few highs. They also talk the concept of “normal” and what that means.

“It’s great when people say you look great and you sound great, or ‘I am so glad you are doing well.’ But that does not mean you are great,” Block said. “Instead of saying ‘You look great,’ our question to each other is, ‘How do you feel?’ That is at the core of what somebody with a brain injury needs to hear.”

They have also helped each other recognize, and quietly celebrate, their accomplishments, professionally and otherwise. In doing so, they have helped lead each other “to this place of acceptance where you realize your life is different,” Block said. “You are still you, but you are not the same.”

That is precisely where Kimball finds herself, at the crossroads of her once and future lives. She has reached a place where she finds comfort in both. As she sat in the audience watching McAndrew’s lush production of “Sofonisba,” she remembered how it felt to do something well. It made her proud, and gave her hope.

“It lifted my spirits in ways I had not expected,” Kimball said. “It was nice to feel there was something I was good at.”


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