In 2009, Spirit of the West frontman John Mann was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In 2014, he released his solo album The Waiting Room, a very personal musical journey through his two-year battle with the disease. A year later, playwright Morris Panych turned the album into a stage play of the same name.
Around the same time, Mann publicly revealed his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. Mann has once again found himself the subject of another play based on this latest news. This time, however, it would be Mann’s wife, actor and playwright Jill Daum, who would pen this chapter of his life.
Mirroring Mann and Daum’s personal story, Forget About Tomorrow is a dramatic comedy weaving together the experiences of Jane, Tom, and their two adult children in the months following Tom’s diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“As I met with other women who were dealing with this shit storm of a disease, I became more and more committed to constructing the narrative of a family struggling to find their acceptance of such a cruel diagnosis,” she says.
For Daum, the process of writing Forget About Tomorrow has been a rewarding experience, despite the very personal nature of her play.
“It’s been scary at times and demanding, but truthfully I think it has kept my spirit alive,” she says. “Also, I’ve been able to work with so many incredible people. So instead of suffering alone at home, I’ve been able to collaborate on a piece of theatre that gives me purpose and a lot of laughs.”
When Daum first started writing the play, Mann was eager to contribute. His contribution includes the last two songs he would ever write.
“Working on the music was as cathartic for him as writing the words were for me, and finding the humour together was a healing endeavour,” she says.
Daum has also found strength in the people around her. “I have some amazing friends who check up on me all the time. And so many people love John. So, I don’t feel alone in the loss.”
Playing Jill, the character based on the playwright, is veteran Vancouver actor, Jennifer Lines. While playing a version of someone in real-life, Lines never found it necessary to attempt any sort of impersonation.
“Jill has created a character, a kind of an every-woman named Jane, who has experienced many challenges that Jill herself has faced, as well as scenarios that she has not particularly gone through, so there was never a sense that I ever needed to mimic Jill,” says Lines.
What Lines did find valuable though was having Daum in the rehearsal hall, and in having personally worked with Mann on other projects.
“[It] created a great sense of empathy and compassion within all of us in the room,” she says. “An unspoken respect and commitment regarding the truths I was searching for in Jane’s journey to acceptance. Jill’s daily presence brought great clarity to all of us.”
The challenges in the rehearsal process for Lines has been two-fold, including the fact her character stays onstage throughout the play.
“There were times in technical rehearsals when I had no idea what the next scene was going to be. I’ve got it all sorted out now but this show is relentless for Jane,” she says. “Life keeps coming at her and there is no ducking it. No reprieve. She must keep moving forward through the shock and disbelief because others are depending on her.”
The second challenge came from managing the emotional exhaustion a play tackling these very human issues can generate.
“As a cast, we hold each other up and catch each other when we fall so we share the emotional journey together which lessens the load. As it does in real life,” says Lines.
For Daum, there are a trio of takeaways she hopes audiences will take with them after seeing Forget About Tomorrow.
The first is for a better understanding what an early-onset diagnosis does to a family, the second to lessen the shame and fear around the diagnosis, and the third is perhaps slightly less tangible.
“I hope it does what any piece of theatre should do and build a bridge of understanding between people who have never experienced something and those who live it,” she says.
For Lines, it is a hope audiences will experience the same emotional impact the play has had on the cast and creative team.
“We’ve all shared gut-busting laughter and tears throughout this process,” she says. “Our collective love and admiration for the play, Jill and John has reinforced that this story is so much bigger than any one of us.”
Forget About Tomorrow plays the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Ave, Vancouver) from March 1-25. Visit https://artsclub.com for tickets and information.