The holiday season for many folks is not just about jingly singalongs and snowy sleigh rides.  Melancholy thoughts can come to mind this time of year.

Mad Horse Theatre has inserted a short run of a touching play into what otherwise would have been the company’s December downtime. Thanks in no small part to some fine acting, David Butler’s “Dying to Know” artfully hits on the most serious of subjects with sensitivity and strength.

The play revolves around a relationship that develops between a physically weak but tough-talking terminal cancer patient named Caroline (Hannah Daly) and a slightly unhinged hospice care volunteer named Maura (Janice Gardner). Caroline quickly dispels all the careful language and supposedly life-affirming cliches that Maura has been trained to deliver to the “residents” (but never “patients” or, heaven forbid, “dying people”) of the institution where they meet.

Through rather quickly developing dialogue, Maura opens up about her unresolved personal feelings concerning the deaths of her own family members. Caroline comes to appreciate her as a sort of reluctant guide in discussing the many questions about whether there is “something else” beyond death and whether those affected by the reality of dying somehow might gain a greater appreciation for what is “precious” about life. Or is it all just empty talk?

Literary references to William Butler Yeats and others add some intellectual heft. And flashbacks to Maura’s past, with several characters who appear within minimal peripheral set changes, illustrate pivotal moments in her personal development (or lack thereof). The veteran local actor Paul Haley adds his trademark dry comic style to brief roles as a string of mostly unhelpful males who pass through Maura’s life.

But it is the subtly intense bedside encounters between Caroline and Maura that give this play its power and the performance by Gardner is at its heart. The Mad Horse veteran becomes a sympathetic bundle of nerves who seems to be fumbling to find a path forward in her life right there in the absorbing “real time” of up-close theater. Maura’s struggles truly resonate in an incredible piece of acting.

Daly, who stood out earlier this season in the Good Theater production of “Lady Susan,” brings her Caroline back from resignation to acknowledge that she and Maura have connected in ways she thought no longer possible for someone in her condition. Their friendship may end tear-filled but not without some sense of spiritual solace to be found in having bonded with each other in a mysteriously lasting way.

It’s obvious that local playwright Butler worked hard in trying to fathom the effects of knowing so little about what is eventually coming to us all. This 90-minute (with no intermission) premiere production of his play, directed by Nick Schroeder, drills thoughtfully deep for answers but finds some may be closer than we realize.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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