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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I had assumed raising your hands to protect your face when you fall was an automatic reflex, but my mother’s Alzheimer’s proved me wrong. She fell a lot that last year in the second-floor memory unit of her assisted living facility. She kept looking for the door that would lead her out again. After the worst fall, they had to ambulance her to a Richmond hospital an hour away. When I got there, the horror wasn’t just her face—which looked uncannily like the make-up for a zombie extra—but the emptiness in her eyes. She had not the slightest idea who I was.

I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb a couple miles from the mall where George Romero shot Dawn of the Dead. There was a video arcade instead of a gun shop, but otherwise it was the same. I didn’t see the movie till college—and then the ongoing horde of other movies and TV shows still shuffling after it. I used to teach the Walking Dead comic book in my first-year writing seminar too. One of my best, though unpublished, short stories is titled “The Zombie Monologues.” Zombies apparently come naturally to me.

The single good thing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s was how it forced my sister and me together. We’d been estranged for a few years, and probably would have remained that way, but then we were digging out our mother’s nest of a condo, and researching assisted living places, and juggling the chaos of her thankfully deep finances. Her actual death brought a slew of new work too, but then that would be it. I was no longer driving over to Williamsburg once a month. There were no more plot contrivances to keep us in the same scene.

My sister is a dancer and choreographer. I’d seen the movement direction she’d done in the theater department at William and Mary, particularly for a production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a sequence of vignettes performed by a student cast changing roles for each piece.  I thought: Monologues are like vignettes. And then I said: Do you want to make a play together?

We started meeting for long brunches once a month in a little town exactly half way between Williamsburg and Lexington. She played dramaturg, asking questions about the evolving script: How do the zombies change roles? They touch objects and become infused by the former owners. Who is presenting these monologues? A therapist trying to convince people to become zombies. Why would he do that? Because he’s sinister. No, two-dimensional villains are boing—I tell my fiction writing classes that every semester. He’s something much much worse: he’s sincere. He actually thinks he’s helping his patients by ending their suffering.

Joan suggested new sections too, helped figure out the arc of the sequence, as we also plotted the new story of how one evening the therapist’s seminar goes terribly wrong. As much as he would like to think his zombies are happily emptied vessels, there’s still some disruptive humanity swirling inside them. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the only thing keeping them alive and the therapist from achieving his tragic success.

After our mother’s funeral—we spilled her ashes into the hole the groundskeepers dug in front of the family gravestone six months after her New Years death—the artistic producer at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre said he’d like to stage the show. My sister had worked there before, and had showed him the script after we’d revised it into the best shape we could without seeing actors actually perform the words and movements.

The pandemic hit a few months after that, just weeks after the first read-through. We pivoted to Zoom and created a shortened online preview version of mostly solo performances, reprising the old title “Zombie Monologues.” Then at the start of this year, we again got the green light for an August stage production and started rehearsals back up, soon with three new cast members. That process was oddly ideal, combining actors who were familiar with the material with new actors who very quickly leapt to the same level. After the first stumble-through rehearsals, I got to revise with a new ear for how the words actually worked in performance. My sister’s directorial style is not surprisingly movement based, so she would ask for specific revisions and additions based on how the play was actually unfolding physically on stage. Our two skill areas, text and movement, are a perfect collaboration.

The project has achieved my initial goal of staying close to her. That’s probably ironic for a play about zombies trying to convince people to let go of all human connection. It’s hard work. You have to walk with your hands reaching in front of you. You can’t worry about falling. Just keep grabbing anything you can before it disappears again. The Zombie Life opens this week and closes the week after.

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