On returning to Ithaca and playwrighting

Native Ithaca resident Arthur Bicknell is the playwright of Dotty, at the Kitchen Theatre this weekend for a second run after its successful 2014 premiere. The Homecoming Players production, which tells the story of a woman moving back to her family home and trying to reconcile with her aging mother, who’s in an assisted-living senior center, includes an opening-night gala Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon performances. 

The Shirley Hockett I finally met in 2010 was long retired and now residing in the bucolically beautiful Bridges, a senior assistant living Tudor mansion in Cornell Heights. We hit it off and made up for lost time immediately. Despite her advanced state of dementia (or maybe because of it—who knows), Shirley brought out all the silliness, showboating, wisecracking, and incessant flights of fantasy and wordplay my own mother (Harriet Metcalf Bicknell) had helped nurture in me years and years ago. Each time Rachel and I visited Bridges, we and Shirley would carry on incorrigibly like school children, sometimes aided and abetted by fellow residents, the likes of Barlow and Annie, and even members of the staff and management. Our antics often resembled nothing less than mad tea parties in Wonderland. (We all took turns being sane and rational Alice, but never for very long, or with any real conviction. We much preferred being mad hatters and march hares.)

Playwright Arthur Bicknell, right, with Homecoming Players partner Rachel Hockett, left, and her mother Shirley. Photo provided.

Playwright Arthur Bicknell, right, with Homecoming Players partner Rachel Hockett, left, and her mother Shirley. Photo provided.

“I wish you’d known her when she was compos mentis,” Rachel said to me often. “You would have loved her and she would have loved you so much.” “What are you talking about?” I retorted. “I do love her and she does love me.” True, her language may have been wackier now than it used to be, but I for one have always found language (especially spoken language) to be a transient, prone-to-be wacky method of communication, at best. What really matters is the soul and spirit and humor we maintain while struggling to cope with whatever stage of language proficiency we happen to be enjoying at any given stage of our lives. And Shirley’s soul, spirit, and humor were all indomitable, staying solid right up until that serene, autumn-light-speckled afternoon three years ago when she quietly slipped away from us.

Once, at a large (probably too large) family gathering at Bridges, everybody was talking at once, shouting excitedly across the table, interrupting everybody else with zingers and anecdotes and life observations. Shirley, unable to participate let alone dominate the conversation as was her wont, finally waved her fork frantically in the air and exclaimed: “This is where I would say something really clever and funny but I can’t think of a thing to say!” The words themselves may have abandoned her, but her timing never diminished—not one little bit.

While faithfully keeping her own popular Dinner Blog based on our visits with Shirley, Rachel continued to encourage me to capture our experiences in a full-length play. Trouble was, I hadn’t really written anything of significance for over thirty years—not since that Mack truck Broadway flop of mine called Moose Murders virtually plowed over my career as an “emerging playwright” in 1983.

But Shirley was working her magic on me, day by day. My own mother died when I was fifteen, so I hadn’t really understood or appreciated the ardent, indescribably influential power of maintaining a relationship with one’s mother throughout adulthood. Here was yet another gift Shirley was bestowing on me. God knows she already had enough kids of her own—five of them including Rachel—but here she was treating me like another one of her own brood—without any actual, specific memories—who needed them; they just got in the way—but with an honesty and openness that unleashed a flood of my own memories about my own fun-loving, playful, and supportive mother—the all-important companion I’d lost so many years ago. I began to fantasize about Shirley and Rachel meeting Harriet and developing a friendship—maybe right here in a safe and accommodating world like Bridges—and these fantasies ineluctably turned into the creation of Daphne L. Parker, her adult daughter Dotty, and her best friend Mabel Bean: three irresistibly compelling characters who insisted on having a full-length play of their own.

And so, thanks to Shirley, Rachel— and Harriet—I finally obliged, wrote Dotty, and became a playwright again, after lurking in the shadows for over three decades. They really gave me no other choice, you see, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

Directed by Rachel Hockett, Dotty features Camilla Schade, Carolyn Cadigan, and Kristin Sadd, and opens Friday at 7:30pm with a 6pm fundraising gala beforehand. More info on Facebook and tickets at homecomingplayers.org or at the door.

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