Lost (and found) in midair

Danna Schaeffer's "You in Midair," about life after the murder of her daughter, catches the essence of life, emotion, love, longing, and grief

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: losing a child. It upsets the natural order of things, leaves an irreplaceable emptiness. And it is the premise of the wrenching but surprisingly joyous You in Midair, running at New Expressive Works for just one more week.

That the nightmare is not only a true story, but that it was written and is performed by the mother who suffered the loss, makes it both more poignant and almost unbearable. You likely know the story of Rebecca Schaeffer, the 21-year-old Oregon actress who’d found success as a regular on the television series My Sister Sam, and who was murdered by her stalker at her Los Angeles apartment in 1989. It was a heartbreaking death, even for an outsider.

Danna Schaeffer performing her play “You in Midair.” Photo: Owen Carey

What you likely don’t know is the view from inside the family’s grief. Twenty-eight years later, playwright Danna Schaeffer opens up in the most vulnerable fashion imaginable: by performing a solo show she wrote about the experience. It is as devastating as you might imagine, but it is also funny – Schaeffer shares some of the absurd moments that followed losing her daughter so publicly – and liberating for someone to share such real, raw grief.

Danna begins the play a happy mother of an up-and-coming star. It is one month before Rebecca’s death, and her mother has accompanied her to Italy where she is filming a TV movie. “My cup runneth over,” says a joyful Danna. A month later, tragedy strikes. Danna walks you through everything with vivid detail – the phone call, the flight to L.A., the visit to the morgue (“We’re here to see our daughter’s body,” they say), finding a burial plot for three (for a moment, Danna forgets herself, and wonders if they should get a larger plot in case Rebecca gets married), the well-meaning friends, therapy, the trial and conviction of Rebecca’s killer, and the slow movement toward carrying on with a life that will never be the same.

Benson, Rebecca, and Danna Schaeffer, holidays 1987-88. Photo courtesy Danna Schaeefer

This is not the information paparazzi have run over each other to get first. The murderer is barely mentioned. Instead, the focus here is on Rebecca and her parents, Danna and Benson. On the life Rebecca had, and on the life Danna and Benson pieced together after their only child was gone.

Danna’s writing is superb: She quotes Shakespeare on grief, but has her own vast experience and language to describe it: “Without her, I don’t know where I am in time,” says the mother, who is now in her 70s. And, as she and Benson grow older together, she says, “Our grandchildren are dreams, just like Rebecca is a dream.” It is stark and unimaginable for a parent, but Danna has the wisdom to realize her loss was not the greatest one: “Yes, we lost Rebecca,” she says, “but she lost life itself.”

The play, directed by Julie Akers, is paced perfectly. It slows down when it needs to – pregnant pauses that let you fill up with the emotions Danna must have felt – but it mostly moves along quickly, and you won’t believe an hour and fifteen minutes have passed by when it ends. And what an ending. The final scene is intense and beautiful, a mother singing to her child who has now been gone longer than she lived. While her loss is unfathomable for most of us, Danna seems to have found a type of peace and has gone on to live a full life – at least the version of full she gets to have under the circumstances.

Remembering a life shortened, and a life led on. Photo: Owen Carey

As this is Danna’s acting debut, it would be easy to pick it apart: the occasional slip, the lack of polish. But it is exactly that she is unpolished that makes this work. I tried to imagine this piece performed by a stronger, more experienced actor and, while it would have resonated in many ways, it would have lacked the reality of being with the very person who walked the path being laid out on the stage. It would have been a lovely and sad story, but little more than a story. Instead, with Danna alone on the stage for a little over an hour, audiences are rapt, keenly aware that they are witnessing so much more than a theater performance. They are seeing a living, breathing human’s life laid bare with vulnerability.

You in Midair is what so much theater wants to be: real life on stage, capturing the essence of life, emotion, love, longing, grief. With its limited run at N.E.W., you still have a few more chances to see this phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime show before it closes.

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You in Midair continues at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 12-14; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15 at New Expressive Works, 810 S.E. Belmont Street. Ticket information here.

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