Three-quarters of the way through the show I recognize that Prospero’s staff is, in fact, a caduceus. In the same instant, I understand for the first time that the brooding, vengeful wizard’s sudden change of heart, the decision to forgive and to mend instead of to punish and to destroy, comes about because Prospero is dying.
The Tempest has always been my favorite Shakespeare play, but it is as if I have never seen it before now, in this play-within-a-play where Tamara Tunie (of Law and Order fame) comes back to Pittsburgh to play an oncologist, now stricken with the disease she has spent her life curing, who becomes the wizard in her healing dreams.
She is attended by a colleague who high-fives her, intertwining their fingers. In the dream this colleague becomes good Gonzalo, the upright, kind exception to the rule among the shipwrecked schemers. Her meal is brought in and her trash taken out by a brash, tattooed orderly-turned-Caliban. The real life drama and the Shakespearean plot twists take her in looping cycles through all the stages of grief until the play reaches its inescapable message: our revels now are ended.
Saving lives does not make the healers any less vulnerable than the saved. Tunie’s oncologist becomes a great wizard and climbs out her window to the spirits in the snowstorm, reclaiming her power from the cancer – until Prospero’s own illness brings her low again, back into the bed under the Penguins blanket.
I thought of my own colleagues: a treasured mentor just now diagnosed with cancer, mere days after I saw this production. A younger physician whom I once mentored, killed by a car on the turnpike while helping another motorist in distress. My cousin Richard, who gifted me his little black bag, struck suddenly by a pulmonary embolus just weeks after a long-awaited surgery, and a month after what is now the most memorable Passover seder I ever attended.
Our revels now are ended. We are such stuff as dreams are made of. If we are so insubstantial, what is the value of our healing?
It is this: the actors may be “melted into air,” but what transpired between them, the wisdom that was taught, the good that was done, endures, and propagates to another generation, like Prospero finally blessing the union of Miranda and Ferdinand. A life ends, but Life begins anew.
Our revels, it seems, have only just begun.k