Playwright Neal Bell was complaining that the anxiety had caught up with him. The world premiere of his latest, "Cold Sweat," (tonight at South Coast Repertory) was due and insomnia had set in. Then there were all those questions--is it too ambiguous? Will the audience find it accessible?--that kept nagging.
"My mind is like Swiss cheese. . . . I haven't been able to sleep right for a couple of nights," he confessed, shaking his head and smiling. "It's like this almost every time (before an opening), but this time seems to be worse than most."
The jitters are understandable. The slender East Coast writer acknowledged during a recent interview that he's taken some chances with "Cold Sweat," a drama exploring an area as fascinating as it is disturbing, ephemeral as it is specific: The subject is death and how we live with it.
Bell, 37, has taken on provocative topics before--infanticide in "Two Small Bodies" and embezzlement in "Sleeping Dogs"--but this latest work is perhaps his most ambitious.
"Cold Sweat" (continuing through April 12 on the Second Stage) begins in Vietnam during the war. Alice Franklin, a combat surgeon, faces death and dying every day as a stream of broken soldiers are brought to her operating room. The daily trauma wears on her and when she loses her lover, another doctor, during a bombing raid, Alice realizes she cannot continue in Vietnam.
She returns to the states and immerses herself in thanatology, the study of the process of dying. She comes under the tutelage of a hypnotic spiritualist, part charlatan, part seer, and begins to believe in an afterlife. She also develops a philosophy about how we should prepare for death and, despite challenges from skeptics, eventually writes a book explaining her views.
In Alice, we have "someone who is grappling with issues about death and trying to find the truth even when it is terribly painful," Bell said. "She has a series of epiphanies that all lead to one point, which is something of her own enlightenment."
While hardly autobiographical--Bell has never been to Vietnam or experienced a leap of faith similar to Alice's--he said much of the play's questioning tone was inspired by his own pain over the death of his parents in the early 1970s; his mother died when he was 21 and his father two years later. He had to face feelings of isolation and separation, and the sadness led to internal dialogues about the nature of mortality and the validity of religion.
"I, of course, had those childlike questions of where they were, where they had gone and why I couldn't have them back," he recalled. "It was a hard time and, like everyone, I guess, I wondered if I'd ever see them again (in an afterlife). I wouldn't say that writing 'Cold Sweat' was actually therapy, but it had some qualities like that."
Despite the play's spiritual underpinnings, Bell describes himself as an agnostic who is skeptical of life after death. But instead of portraying Alice and her search as futile or even ridiculous, Bell decided to make her heroic.
"There's definitely something desperate about her because her tragedy is so complete. But I also think she is someone who is very brave. The way she handles death and how she's always true to herself is something admirable."
A sense of Alice's heroism is suggested by her work in Vietnam, which Bell feels was the right place ("a world of complete and traumatic violence") to set the play's initial tone. Her natural courage and resilience, two traits crucial to Alice's later episodes, are already demonstrated by her survival in Vietnam, he explained.
Bell is satisfied with the authenticity of these early scenes and does not feel they suffered because he lacks firsthand experience of Vietnam and the war. He also doesn't think the setting, with its shocking, incendiary imagery, is a gratuitous dramatic device.
"I chose it because it would have the right impact; I needed a place that would have a great effect on Alice and set up how everything else would happen in the play," he said.
"I also felt that since the war was so firmly rooted in my psyche, having lived through that era, that I could write about it. And, anyway, a writer has to be able to use his imagination. What's the point if he can't create something?"
The creation of "Cold Sweat" was of special interest to SCR, which commissioned Bell early last year to write the play.
South Coast's support went beyond the financial. In May "Cold Sweat" received an informal reading as part of SCR's Newscript program, which gives an audience the opportunity to comment on an inchoate, unproduced work. From there, SCR actors and directors offer their views.
This give-and-take process, Bell noted, resulted in several revisions and, he hopes, a more effective and pertinent theater piece.
"I think it's come a long way and will be accepted . . . but you never know, so you always worry a bit. You just hope it's personal without being too personal, I guess."