During his time as a hospital and prison chaplain, minister David Butler tried to help people find faith in the extremes of life. Some faced certain death, others an uncertain future. Many asked Butler questions about life after death, redemption and what would be next for them.

A writer, Butler translated those conversations into the form of a play called “Dying to Know,” which he finished a decade ago, but it was never staged beyond two readings. After receiving what he calls a “grim” cancer diagnosis this summer, he and a friend at Mad Horse Theatre saw to getting it fully produced, and quickly.

Butler, 70, whose faith journey began with atheism and then Buddhism before he felt the presence of God, describes himself as a Christian agnostic. He’s never had easy answers to questions about the afterlife, nor does he now as he confronts them while undergoing treatment for stage 4 esophageal cancer, a diagnosis that has a survival rate of 5 percent just a few years out.

“It’s a scary disease,” he said.

In “Dying to Know,” which opened at Mad Horse Theatre Company in South Portland on Thursday and runs through Dec. 12, Butler writes about his personal experiences, based on his work as a minster and his approach to the unanswerable questions about afterlife and coming to terms with death. His cancer diagnosis motivated him to revisit the play, but he didn’t rewrite it.

“I might write a very different play today,” he said. But he did want to see it produced, because of his own diagnosis and because so many others have faced their own end-of-life questions during the pandemic.

“I have spent a lot of time in the last four or five months thinking about death, and that is the central theme of this play,” he said. “Death has been a big part of American life these last two years. More and more people have gotten closer to it and are struggling to come to terms with it.”

“Dying to Know” might help.

From far left, director Nick Schroeder, Maureen Butler and playwright David Butler watch as actors, from right, Paul Haley, Hannah Daly and Janice Gardner rehearse Butler’s play, “Dying to Know,” on stage at Mad Horse Theatre Company through Dec. 12. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION

The 90-minute one-act play focuses on two primary characters. Played by Hannah Daly, Caroline is an angry young woman in hospice dying of cancer, and Maura, played by Janice Gardner, is a hospice volunteer who is supposed to talk with Caroline about her feelings. Paul Haley plays several characters who weave in and out of the play, including a priest.

Despite its heavy nature, the script is quietly funny. Maura, who is on her first assignment as a hospice volunteer, is clearly flustered talking to someone in a hospital bed dying and makes a mess of her introduction, first calling Caroline a patient, then a guest and, finally, “my first dying person. O God! I’m certainly not supposed to say that. That’s like the biggest no-no.”

Amused, Caroline waves off the apology. “No, I’m rather enjoying this. I may be afraid to die, but I’m not nearly as afraid of that as you seem to be afraid of me.”

Butler based the character Caroline on several people he ministered while they were dying. He based Maura, in part, on his wife, Maureen Butler.

Playwright David Butler hugs actress Hannah Daly as he thanks her for being in his play. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maureen’s father died when she was 21. Two brothers died when she was 39 and 40. And right after that, her mother became sick with Alzheimer’s. Grief has been present most of her life, along with the questions about what happens to loved ones after they die.

“Some people are fairly concretely confident about heaven and hell and meeting people they love and everybody being back together again,” Maureen Butler said. “I would love it if that were true. But I am not at all clear about that.”

Being married to a person of faith didn’t help. She used to challenge her husband, “You tell me you are a religious person. Prove to me there is something after death, talk me into it – please!'” But Butler did not, and could not, because he didn’t know.

That was part of the reason he began writing the play a decade ago, to explore some of the spiritual aspects associated with death. In Butler’s hands, the question of spirituality is answered not in afterlife reunions of loved ones, but in the actions of people living on earth. “Dying to Know” is about a friendship that grows between two women as they confront questions and fears about death.

Director Nick Schroeder, far left, playwright David Butler, right, and Butler’s wife Maureen Butler watch a rehearsal of Butler’s play, “Dying to Know,” at Mad Horse Theatre Company. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SLICES OF LIGHT

The Butlers, who live in Bath, are longtime members of the Maine theater community. David is an author, playwright and actor whose other plays include “The Grand O’Neill” and “The Terminal Bar.” The Boston Center for the Arts produced a biographical play, “The High Priest of Infinity.” Maureen is an actor and poet. They each have grown children from previous marriages.

Butler ministers at Days Ferry Congregational Church in Woolwich and spent many years at the Congregational Church of Gorham. He studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he also worked as a chef.

He talked about his faith during a recent sermon at Days Ferry, comparing it to swimming in the middle of the ocean and trusting “that what buoys you up in that 900 feet of water is something that we can rely on.”

 

 

From right, actors Paul Haley and Janice Gardner talk with playwright David Butler, his wife Maureen Butler and director Nick Schroeder during a rehearsal of Butler’s play, “Dying to Know,” at Mad Horse Theatre Company. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

God is a mystery, he told the congregation, “and actually to talk about God is almost folly, and so most of the time, we don’t. If you will notice in this church, we don’t talk about God. We talk about the experience of God, which is a different thing. We talk about this visible slice of light that we know and can recognize and can trust.”

Mad Horse presents its plays in a former schoolhouse on Mosher Street in South Portland. The Butlers attended a rehearsal Thanksgiving week, watching the action while seated with director Nick Schroeder on the sideline. Butler is taking infusions of chemotherapy every other week in Boston, and the sessions debilitate him for several days afterward.

“I have a week of good time every two weeks, so I am limited in my ability to get involved,” he said.

The night he attended rehearsal, he had just learned that the infusion scheduled for the next morning had been delayed. That news delighted him, because it meant he would enjoy Thanksgiving.

“I am thrilled about this play,” he said before the rehearsal began, “and I am glad to have someone doing it locally. This particular group at Mad Horse are people I really respect and admire. They are really good actors. And Nick is a first-rate director. They’re all good friends, and I could not be happier we are doing this.”

The play’s director Nick Schroeder watches as actors rehearse a scene from “Dying to Know.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Schroeder is 10-year friend of the Butlers and considers David a father figure. They had often talked about doing the play, someday. When Butler received his diagnosis, Schroeder accelerated the plan. He called Butler “a very good friend and a role model to me in a lot of ways, and I’m honored to be able to work so closely with his ideas.”

Schroeder and his partner recently had their first baby, a girl. Directing a play about death while bringing life into the world has been a profound experience, he said, and it helped connect him to the script.

“Grief is really hard, and it can have a way of disconnecting you from the world,” he said. “What I love about this play is that it reframes the concepts of faith and redemption as essentially social acts – the practice of trust, love and care between people – rather than the work of some transcendental power.”

Butler recently spent several hours with the baby girl, and found the experience joyful and life-affirming – a true gift. Or, as he might say, a visible slice of light.

“She may be the last baby I ever hold,” he said. “I walked her around while she slept and fell in love with this little baby.”

Maureen Butler cherishes those moments, and she accepts that her questions about what happens next will remain unanswered more than 50 years after she began asking them.

“It’s so hard to say goodbye to people,” she said. “They are not just going on a trip – they are gone.”


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