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    Stages of Grief and Celebration

    “I crossed a threshold at a very young age in terms of my knowledge about death,’’ says Leigh Marshall, an MFA playwright in the Theater Arts Program at the University of Iowa. “It doesn’t mean there was any innocence lost per se, but it just means there was an acquisition of a certain type of knowing.” Marshall lost her father, Albert, to cancer at age 16 and this trauma was the foundation of her play Laterality, which debuted at the University of Iowa this past February.


    Laterality is a story of twin brothers; one, Skinny, who is dying of lung cancer and the other, Blue, who is forced to take care of him in his final days. Blue struggles with substance abuse and ponders abandoning his dying brother. The relationship between the two brothers is complicated when they befriend a neighbor and poet who reframes their suffering as love and brotherhood. While the play is not autobiographical, it did grow out of Marshall’s experience caring for her father. “The play came out of what it was like to be in the room with somebody you love who is plugged into an oxygen machine,” she described. “You have to deal with these finalities and keep everything going. This play is me thinking about what really happens to the body when you have a galaxy of tumors inside of you and how that warps reality.”


    Though Laterality was written over a decade of processing her father’s death, Marshall’s time at the University of Iowa has been instrumental in turning it from an idea into a reality. “One of the fortunate things about being an MFA playwright at Iowa, you’re given space, time and resources to devote the majority of your time to the writing of your plays.” Furthermore, the MFA program at Iowa gave Marshall the opportunity to work alongside and learn from other students from diverse backgrounds and with varied interests. This diversity was a significant reason why Marshall chose Iowa: “I wanted to collaborate with intellectually different writers with different viewpoints.”


    Even though Laterality is in many ways a play exploring the finality of death, it is also a celebration of life. Marshall reflected that Skinny, the terminally ill brother, is alive throughout the play and that his emotions are central to the story. Impending death is an amplifier of emotion for Marshall, making the pursuit and presence of love more urgent. This urgency is reflected in Marshall’s work itself as well as the characters she creates. “Even in those rock bottom moments, the pursuit of love and the presence of love exists powerfully and in a very tangible way,” Marshall concluded. To learn more about Leigh Marshall, visit the University of Iowa website


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    Image Credit: University of Iowa

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