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Stage Is Latest Arena for Suicide Guru : Theater: 'Is This the Day?' is based on Derek Humphry's book on how he helped his first wife kill herself. It has its U.S. premiere Friday in Oregon.

January 22, 1992|FRED CRAFTS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Crafts is a free-lance arts writer living in Eugene, Ore

EUGENE, Ore. — Derek Humphry hangs up the phone after sparring with a German television station and glances out the large window of his office in the Hemlock Society's national headquarters.

"They were begging me to come to Germany, all expenses paid. I said, 'No, I'm sorry, I just don't have time,' " says the 61-year-old guru of "self-deliverance and assisted suicide" for the terminally ill.

Ever since his incendiary book, "Final Exit," topped the nonfiction bestseller lists last fall, Humphry has been hot news. Reporters, photographers and television crews parade through this spacious office daily, seeking pearls and dirt. The white-haired crusader suffers them all gracefully.

But he's also inscrutable--a fact underscored by his mysterious lack of involvement in the U.S. premiere here Friday of "Is This the Day?," a 1990 British play based on an earlier book on how he helped his cancer-weakened first wife, Jean, commit suicide in 1975.

No stranger to controversy, Humphry is the thrice-married (two of his wives have committed suicide) executive director of the Hemlock Society, headquartered near the city center. From here he has guided his Hemlock Movement by going toe-to-toe with the medical profession, right-to-life groups, religious leaders and others against voluntary euthanasia.

Humphry's weapons for legal reform have been his own persuasive powers as a debater and speaker, his books, initiatives, pamphlets, newsletters, the talk-show circuit and now the play, "Is This the Day?"

While Humphry draws stiff opposition from ethical and legal fronts, no resistance has yet surfaced here to the play, based on his 1978 pioneering book, "Jean's Way." The Eugenesis Players of Oregon is scheduled to perform "Is This the Day?" on Friday, Saturday, Jan. 31 and Feb. 1-2 in Hult Center's 500-seat Soreng Theatre.

An American production of this stark drama, voted Britain's best play in 1990, has long been Humphry's goal. Yet, with one finally emerging, he has curiously avoided milking it, even going so far as to take himself out of opportunities to hype the play and his cause by vacationing in Mexico for the 10 days just before opening night.

But he has given it his blessing, taken an interest in its development and donated $5,000 to its funding.

"I'm trying to help this play along, but I'm not trying to boss it," he says, adding, "I don't know anything about the theater."

He has attended no rehearsals and has met with the cast just twice--in August to answer their questions and in October to consider their qualms about continuing after his second wife, Ann Wickett, committed suicide while apparently despondent over cancer and her divorce from Humphry.

But Humphry remains keen on the play. He has seen it only twice--during the run in Britain and in Eugene earlier this month, when a condensed version was given at a Hemlock Society meeting here.

"My emotions are so heavy on this that it's difficult to be objective about whether it's any good or not," Humphry says. "It's a very unusual experience to see yourself on the stage, especially in such a painful episode. A lot of the dialogue is exactly what was said. It's not easy."

Nor was it a picnic for the actor who portrays him. At the Jan. 5 presentation, Gene Otis couldn't miss Humphry in the second row, bathed in bright television lights. "That was the toughest thing I've ever done," Otis says.

But that's just one of the play's many blurrings of reality and artistry. Another occurred when Humphry's three sons, weary of media attention, demanded that their names be changed in the play. At the same time, Derek himself was changed to "Max," Jean to "Jane" and Ann to "Amy."

"When you write about yourself, you expose your family very nakedly to criticism and exposure. You might get fame and fortune, but, boy, you get a lot of private grief that comes with these things as well. You pay for what you get," Humphry says. "I'm sorry I put them through it.

"My justification is that it is a crucial cause to mankind."

Mounting "Is This the Day?' has been a trial. When rehearsals began in August, director Judith Roberts thought she simply had an "intriguing" play. Suddenly, the outside world barged in: "Final Exit" hit the bestseller lists and Humphry exploded in the media. When Humphry's second wife committed suicide, Roberts was dumbfounded.

"It was like living in a docudrama," she says. "The ironies abound and they continue to unfold before our very eyes."

The cast has had enough irony.

"I'm just so tired of all the sensationalism," says Diane Johnson, who plays Humphry's first wife. Adds Cara Siler, who plays his second wife: "I'm trying not to weigh all this too heavily on the character."

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