Ever so gently, he bathes her, dresses her and feeds her.
When they first became a couple a quarter-century ago, playwright Carlyle Brown and dramaturge Barbara Rose-Brown relished the idea that they would continue to grow and learn throughout their lives together. They dreamed of making postcard memories, and thought of themselves as the theater world’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But fate is fickle. And the stage they’re now in is not something either imagined.
On a March night in 2017, Barb rose from her bed, as she often did, to get a Diet Coke, her Kryptonite. But then she took an ominous tumble, unable to get up off the floor.
Her alarmed husband rushed to her aid.
Only 57 at the time, Barb had had a stroke, a catastrophe that robbed her of articulate speech, free movement and the fierce independence she had treasured all her life. It also robbed Carl, as she calls him, of his partner in love and drama, and redefined nearly everything about their lives.
It was like she was a newborn again, taking baby steps with movement and language.
“Something like that changes her but also you,” he said. “Who am I now? I never pictured myself a caregiver. Yet here I am. I don’t find it onerous but actually a privilege. It’s another thing that we’re doing together. And I applaud her for despite everything she’s gone through, she has such strength and vitality.”
They are unsentimental about it. Don’t feel sorry for them, he said. And they don’t want to be seen as loving or touching or sappy. It’s what they signed up for when they said “I do.”
“Caregivers are just living up to their marriage vows of for better or worse,” he said. “Barb’s the true hero of this story.”
That story is the subject of a play that is getting an online staged reading Friday. An intimate work about their journey, “It’s not a young person’s love story — precious, all about infatuation and seeing only the perfect part of your partner,” said Illusion Theater producing director Bonnie Morris. “It’s honest and full of a deeper kind of love that comes after the blush of first being in love fades.”
Name on a sign
They met in the mid-1990s when she held up a sign with his name at the airport. Then an intern at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, Barb had gone to pick up a noted dramatist who was to be in residence in Minneapolis.
Both were previously married parents — he had kids from two marriages, she from her one and only.
They fell in love, wed and built a life together around their shared love of plays. Carl continued to build his repertory as the globe-trotting playwright who made history palpable for contemporary audiences in works such as “The African Company Presents Richard the Third,” about a slavery-era black troupe doing Shakespeare; “The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show” and “Pure Confidence,” about a 19th-century black jockey.
Barb worked as his dramaturge, a role that’s often likened to that of a theatrical midwife. But, if we follow that birth metaphor, a dramaturge combines both an OB-GYN and a pediatrician, helping to shape and ensure the health of a work during the gestation phase and after it gets on its feet.
Barb has been crucial to all his plays since they met, Carl said. She was his audience as he tried out dialogue and ideas aloud. She would correct him, encourage him, guide him, until the work achieved an alchemy that was just right. They relished their playful but spirited tussle over how to find the exact, perfect expression for a feeling or an idea, always with Barb deep in the background.
But now all of that has changed for a couple who protect their privacy. When he wins big honors, like the William Inge Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater Award in 2018 — an award previously won by Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Stephen Sondheim — he nods to her.
Life into play
They collaborated on “A Play by Barb and Carl,” where she gets her first byline. The one-act was given a developmental production last summer in Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink series and was slated to be fully produced at the theater this spring before the coronavirus shutdown.
Compact and intense, the play has nine scenes crafted from the couple’s journey, from “Barb Takes a Fall” and “Aphasia” to “Therapy” and “I Don’t Want to Live Anymore.” The scenes also deal with the frustrations of navigating insurance and the health care system, with physical and psychic pain and with songs that come through no matter what the calamity.
In their case, Barb likes to sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are … ”
Somehow, the couple find ways to communicate. “It’s through gestures and an understanding,” said director Michael Robins, who helmed a workshop of their play and is slated to direct the work whenever it comes up.
It’s also through words. Two years after the stroke, Barb mostly had access to what Carl calls “a vowel and a consonant.” She could say “no” and “OK.” But last summer a speech therapist attended a developmental reading of their play in Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink series, and volunteered to work with Barb.
The therapist has been giving her breathing and vocal exercises. “She’s getting the tools to find the sounds of the words she has in her head,” Carl said. “Now, things pop up like old times. In the news now, it’s all coronavirus, and out of nowhere she said, ‘Are you concerned?’ I was so amazed, I forgot the question.”
Lately Barb also has been talking in her sleep. “Most of it is gibberish, but there are lots of conjunctions — but, and, however,” he said. “It seems like the brain is not just trying to say words, but is constructing language, a system of thought.”
She’s also making sentences and using gestures to make her meaning clear. Carl wrote the play with her, he insists, and he’s not speaking for her.
In “Barb and Carl,” she airs a halting welter of emotions. “There is something about love that is like survival,” she tells listeners. “It’s a jungle full of feelings ... desires ... dangers. He loves me ... I didn’t know it before, but I know it now. He loves me. I can see it in his eyes the way he looks at me … or is that pity and a sense of duty. ...
“After all, how could he love me, why would he love me … look at me. I’m broken, misshapen, deformed. No one understands me. No one wants to talk to me. When I speak I sound like a Jabberwocky, and my face — look at my face. I’ve seen the mirror. It’s all twisted. And my nails, my poor once-beautiful shiny nails, are all split and broken. And now I’m ‘a dependent,’ ... nothing special, just one of many … someone who can’t speak for themselves.”
Who knows the alchemy and mystery of affection? Before this latest chapter in their lives, they used to rib each other mercilessly. They still josh, although it’s different now. And some of that spirit is in the play, when Carl’s character says that there have been “times when I loved her so much, I just didn’t know what to do. And other times I wanted to stuff her ass in a bag full of cats and throw her into the river.”
The hardest part of writing “Barb and Carl” was how to close it, Carl said. The story is still being written.
“We don’t know what [the end] is going to be yet,” Carl said. “We’re living that part.”