One Night Only: Jill Clayburgh Channels Gail Sheehy & Ed Herrmann Brings Clay Felker Back to Life
It’s a rainy afternoon in early May, and the esteemed actors Edward Herrmann and Jill Clayburgh are running lines on the pulpit of the whitewashed Lakeville United Methodist Church. They are rehearsing a play called Chasing the Tiger by Gail Sheehy, the Vanity Fair contributing editor who is best known for her 1970s blockbuster Passages, who is sitting in the front pew. The play, which is adapted from Sheehy’s just published book, Passages in Caregiving, is the story of the love affair between Sheehy and the legendary founder of New York Magazine, Clay Felker, and their 17-year battle with his cancers. This rehearsal could just as easily be happening at Playwrights Horizons or Lincoln Center Theater, but it’s happening in Lakeville, CT, where it will be performed for one night only (June 5) with this cast (including Star Herrmann and Rick Trabucco ) as a benefit for Community Mental Health Associate’s Northwest Center for Family Services.
How did such a high-octane production become a fundraiser for a rural mental health clinic? Sheehy, who rented a house with Felker for the last two years of his life in Hillsdale, NY (her daughter Maura has a house in Copake), met Community Mental Health Affiliates development director Priscilla McCord playing tennis. “She asked me last fall if I would do a lecture for their annual fundraiser, because she knew my book would be coming out,” says Sheehy. “I thought a lecture seemed boring for a benefit party, so I suggested doing a play. It just popped out of my mouth.”
The casting was a matter of coincidence and convenience. Clayburgh, a longtime resident of Salisbury, CT, is an old friend of Sheehy’s. “We met when my fourth book, Hustling, which was about prostitution in Manhattan, was turned into a TV movie with Jill and Lee Remick, who was then the much bigger star, but Jill took the movie away,” recalls Sheehy. “This was before
An Unmarried Woman, which really made Jill a star. So I called her out of the blue this winter and asked if she would do it and she said, ‘Yes.’ She brought in Ed and Star Herrmann.” (Like Clayburgh, the Herrmanns live in Salisbury, and they’re all locally famous for donating their time to many charities.)
Chasing the Tiger chronicles the love story of the Manhattan media world’s archetypal power couple from their meeting cute at the old New York Herald-Tribune to their first joint dinner party where the guests included Tom Wolfe and Gloria Steinem. It follows them as they move late in life to Berkeley so Felker can teach journalism to their final, bittersweet trip to Paris where Sheehy must make her husband’s meals in a blender in their hotel room because he can only eat through a feeding tube. How would Felker feel about being portrayed as man in a wheelchair who slurs his words? “He would not have wanted to see himself on stage,” admits Sheehy, though she thinks Herrmann has nailed the character. “I think Clay comes across as brave, funny, strong, endearing, and larger than life.”
Sheehy comes across as larger than life, too. She has given herself the part as the play’s narrator, which provides a poignant layer of verisimilitude. “Congratulations!” she intones. ” You have survived the first two turnings around the Labrynth of Caregiving. You sprinted through Shock & Mobilization. Then adjusted to the New Normal. It’s been a month, maybe a year or more. You’re handling it, thinking OK, I can do this, and suddenly, Boomerang!” The play is clever, charming, life-affirming—and brutal. At one point, Sheehy’s onstage alter ego has a conversation with her own doctor who says: “What you’re really asking yourself, as a wife, is ‘Do I want to stay with Clay—most women can’t admit this. Do you want to give the next ten years—to a man you love—but who is older, aging faster, not healthy—someone who’s lashing out at you, blaming you knowing, that if you stay with him, you could be sixty-five, when he finally dies, in descent yourself—and alone?” Sheehy stays with Felker all the way, although she doesn’t give up her career or grueling travel schedule.
Sheehy (left) has taken on the issue of caregiving with characteristic zeal, and she is now AARP’s Ambassador of Caregiving—the voice of aging baby boomers who are taking care of their parents and spouses. She has 17 years of hand’s-on experience and speaks on behalf of “the 50 million unpaid family caregivers for adults who used to be independent”. Sheehy hopes her book and play will lessen the stress and suffering of caregivers as they navigate an extremely painful passage. “If you have some semblance of a map, it goes from being chaos to something recognizable,” she says, noting it is especially difficult for couples who’ve been together for a long time. “You begin the long painful process of detachment,” she says softly. “You come to realize you and your loved one are on different paths.”
Chasing the Tiger
An Evening Under the Stars to Benefit the CMHA’s Northwest Center for Family Services
Lakeville Methodist Church
June 5 @ 5 p.m.
Performance only: $50
Performance and gala dinner: $150
Tickets: 860.435.2529 x114