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Tough Love: Hospice care highlighted in tender “Holding On – Letting Go”

Iona Morris as Lee, and Barry Wiggins as Bobby share a tender moment, close to the end, in "Holding On - Letting Go" Photo: Carla Fallberg

Few things prove more difficult than handling the moment – and the moments beyond the moment – when someone is given word that a cancer is no longer treatable. A patient blessed with a family circle willing to be involved discovers that the diagnosis hands a life change to everyone he or she cares for. Hospice can help. Hospice can sometimes be critical, aiding both the person living with an inevitable end and those loved ones who must watch that happen.

Such a statement is bound to be met by many – by me – with a wise and knowing nod. Still, in “Holding On – Letting Go” by Bryan Harnetiaux, receiving its premiere at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena, one gets to be within arms reach of the struggle. Intelligently written, passionately acted and sponsored by one of the larger hospice services in the area, it walks one couple through the processing of grief. Grim as this may sound, and some audience members seemed overwhelmed by the story’s familiarity, the play offers a window on the wisdom and beauty which can accompany an essentially ugly thing.

Bobby and Lee, both legendary college basketball coaches, are husband and wife. After battling cancer for some time, Bobby finds out his doctors are out of options while his wife is on a recruiting tour. Her return home is where the story of their ending begins. With the introduction of hospice workers into their home, Lee must come to terms with finality, with an invasion of her space, with the shift in her priorities, and with her somewhat over-nurturing mother-in-law.

This could easily boil down into something very cliche, but it doesn’t. Perhaps that is why so many in the audience are so touched. The characters, well-meaning, flawed and genuine, do not become standard issue. The stages of grief, from disbelief to anger to acceptance come in recognizable but personal stages. The role of hospice is defined, and yet this provides only the avenue for exploring character, not the reason for seeing the play.

The true strength of the production is the performers themselves, who take this gentle script and make it vividly real. Iona Morris brings just the right combination of toughness, tamped down agony, and fighting spirit to Lee, a woman who has learned how to fight odds and win, with an innate belief this will work in any situation. Barry Wiggins makes Bobby a gentle man, long-resigned to his own fate but anxious for connection. As Bobby’s mother, Amentha Dymally fusses about with a practicality increasingly obviously used to tamp down her profound sadness.

As the hospice crew, Jill Remez as Bobby’s nurse provides the practical realist whose experience becomes the family’s foundation. Lamar Hughes’ willing and cheerful Gabe offers up a focus on comfort and beauty everyone else is too busy to address. Christian Malmin gives the group’s spiritual advisor, Roger, an open, casual confidence which provides an equally open comfort to Bobby as they face reality together.

Co-Artistic Director James Reynolds has a way with intimate portraiture, and what could easily have been a very static tale moves well about the FTC’s tiny stage. Indeed, it’s hard to think of it as tiny while looking at Marie Miller’s architecturally fascinating set, which gives an impression of class, interest and space to Lee and Bobby’s house in a way which can only be termed expansive.

“Holding On – Letting Go” is not wildly revelatory, when it comes to examining how families handle impending death. Still, its characters have been developed well enough for one to feel a strong sense of empathy with their struggles. One leaves moved, careful, but uplifted, and the entire thing becomes an affirmation of hospice care and those health professionals who deal full-time with the one thing American society determinedly keeps hid: our mortality. As such, it leaves one much to mull over.

This production marks the beginning of the 15th anniversary season of Fremont Centre Theatre.

What: “Holding On – Letting Go” When: Through May 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 students/seniors Info: (866) 811-4111 or

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