An Act of Humanity
Theatre Alums Share a Kidney in the Production of a Lifetime
By Sheryl McAlister, a freelance writer in South Carolina. She is editor of the blog Old Broad & New Trix. http://oldbroadnewtrix.com
Part 1, Erin’s Story: “Let’s get this Show on the Road”
The first time I saw Erin Thigpen Wilson was March, 2014, in Charleston, SC. She was playing a sadistic human trafficker in PURE Theatre’s production of Russian Transport. She was the matriarch of a group of equally sadistic family members.
She scared the shit out of me.
“Art…,” Edgar Degas said, after all “… is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Meeting her, mercifully, was altogether different. She’s groovy in an old school, hippy sort of way. Laid back with a been-there, done-that attitude. Funny. Quick wit. Seemingly carefree.
She grew up in community theatre in Columbia, SC, the child of a father who was a community theatre actor and high school drama teacher and a mother who ran the box office of the local theatre out of her living room. She performed in too many plays to count, starting at the age of 5 as “Rabbit #3” in Workshop Theatre’s production of Winnie the Pooh. Long ago, she learned how to play make believe.
Early in the summer of 2013, she nearly died. Her kidneys were destroyed. Doctors still don’t know why.
“I was having trouble breathing, but that’s normal for me,” Wilson, an asthma sufferer, said. “The first doctor told me I had bronchitis and gave me an antibiotic. But a week later, I had this incredible body pain. My bones hurt. I didn’t sleep for days.”
A second opinion led to tests that revealed elevated creatinine levels. As the doctor ran yet another set of tests to verify her assumptions, she told Wilson to decide which hospital she wanted to go to in the meantime. And she told her to decide quickly.
Wilson’s husband Laurens had met her at the doctor’s office. “We just looked at each other and were like ‘WHAT?’ The doctor told us we could go by ambulance or drive ourselves but if we decided to drive ourselves, we had to drive straight there. No stops.”
They called her parents – Sally Boyd & Les Wilson and Jim & Kay Thigpen. And her in-laws, Hank & Sue Wilson.
She spent two days in the ICU and was diagnosed with acute kidney failure. Her only option was dialysis. And just like that… Life, as she knew it, had changed forever.
She started hemodialysis, a rigorous, inflexible process that saves lives but dictates how those lives will be spent. The patient is attached to a machine 12 hours a week and cannot move while undergoing treatment. An alternate solution was available a couple months later, and she jumped at the chance.
Peritoneal dialysis “can be done at home,” she said. “There’s a cath in my abdomen; I call it a bullet hole. It’s where a very long tube goes out of my body and hooks up to a machine about the size of a copying machine.”
The process takes 9 to 10 hours each night. Every single night, she’s hooked up to a machine that pumps toxins out of her body. But Wilson seems to take it all in stride, expressing relief that the lead is long and allows her to move around her house without too much hassle.
“My days are free,” Wilson said, “And I can do what I need to do during the day. I have to schedule the 9 to 10 hours every night, but if I have a late night at rehearsal, I won’t schedule anything early the next morning.”
Late night at rehearsals would be at PURE http://www.puretheatre.org where she is a member of the Core Ensemble, and Laurens is Managing Director. They met in March of 1995 in Manhattan when they both bartended for the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.
It was probably love at first sight, but she was married. So they became friends instead. “He introduced himself as Laurens from South Carolina,” Wilson said. “He knew Trustus.”
Trustus http://www.trustus.org is Columbia (SC)’s Trustus Theatre, founded by Wilson’s dad Jim and his wife Kay 30 years ago.
The Wilsons began their life together later that year, and were married in June of 1998. They have moved from New York City to Baltimore to Chicago to Charlotte to Charleston, with occasional moves to Columbia in between. With one exception – Charlotte – every move they made involved “our actual family or a theatre community,” she said.
While the medical brilliance that is dialysis keeps her alive, it is art – the theatre — that has sustained her.
“I have worked harder this past year than I ever have,” she said. “And it has been my saving grace. There was a six month gap where I didn’t do anything, and it was depressing. For the most part, my activity hasn’t diminished.”
Art has long been a vehicle that can tame uncivilized societies, challenge conventional thinking and bring color to the grey. Art represents the heart and soul of a community and its basic humanity.
Art, in this case, literally connected life to life. Kidney to kidney. Generosity to gratitude.
“I needed a transplant,” Wilson said. “I don’t like asking people for help, so it was terrifying for me to think about having to ask. But I put it out there on Facebook.”
The posting said, in essence, she needed a kidney. And a living donor was preferred. She has no siblings. No cousins. Her parents weren’t ideal candidates. To this day, she has no idea how many people were tested or inquired. But one person stepped up.
An actor. From Columbia.
Part 2, Monica’s Story: “The Kidney Thing”
Monica Wyche grew up in Columbia and now lives in New York with her husband, playwright Dean Poynor, and 2-year-old son, Elrod. Wyche is scheduled to donate her left kidney to Wilson during a 4-hour surgery at Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina next week.
They met each other 25 years ago, but they weren’t really friends. They’re about the same age – Wilson is 47, and Wyche is 44 — but they didn’t go to the same high schools. They are both only children. And both have lots of parents. Both their fathers were involved in the theatre, and they met their respective husbands through theatre work.
They didn’t travel in the same circles. Except for the theatre. And Trustus.
Wyche said she owes a debt of gratitude to Trustus and all it has meant to her life. Wyche, who started acting at Cardinal Newman High School, remembered her first role at Trustus in the 1993 production of Dancing at Lughnasa. She taught drama in Columbia’s Richland District 2 schools for seven years.
If not for Trustus, Wyche said: “I would never have met my husband. Erin’s family is directly responsible for my family.”
Wyche is the only child of Alan Wyche and Ann Beatty. Her parents divorced when she was in the third grade, but she said they’ve remained the best of friends. “They have always been so nice to each other, and it’s made a world of difference.”
Wyche’s bonus parents include her mother’s husband Mike Beatty as well as her dad’s third wife Linda Wyche. Her dad’s second wife, Sharon Tanner, was a huge artistic influence on Wyche. “I still call her my stepmother, too,” she said. “I’m close to all of them.” Her in-laws, Paul and Alice Poynor, live in Irmo, SC, where he serves as pastor at St. Andrews Road Presbyterian Church.
Wyche’s mother did not want her to do the surgery at first. “She made that very clear. She’s never been one to try to influence my decisions, but she let me know how she felt. Several times.
“I found a website where they posted all these stories about people who have donated organs and are getting along fine,” she said of http://www.Rock1Kidney.org. “Once she started reading those stories, she started to feel better. She’s still nervous, but she doesn’t think I’ll die. Ultimately, she’s very proud.”
The first time Wyche met Wilson was approximately 25 years ago when they were both working on a student film. She remembered it was about the time Robby Benson was making the movie Modern Love in Columbia. Wilson worked on the film and shared some of the inside humor, Wyche recalled. “She was really nice. Even though we had never been friends, we were friendly.”
Their lives from there took them in different directions, but the common ground was always the theatre. Years later when social media allowed connections between people who might not otherwise have done so, they friended each other on Facebook. And their lives intersected again.
Wyche remembered seeing Wilson’s plea for help and recalled the details of their lives that were so very similar — particularly their theatre experiences. “She just put it out there, and I thought ‘I’d want someone to do that for me.’
“Of course I would give her a kidney,” she continued. “I have two, and I only need one.”
It’s an act of heroism she doesn’t seem to recognize. An act of generosity so selfless most people can’t understand it — giving a body part to a virtual stranger. Plenty of people are organ donors. It’s easy to check the box on the driver’s license; we’ll be dead when our organs are donated. But Wyche doesn’t see herself as anyone’s hero. She has, understandably, wondered about her own decision. But she never contemplated backing out.
Wyche said she has often wondered if all their similarities had anything to do with her steadfast commitment to Wilson and this procedure.
“The tests and the process went really fast. And it never occurred to me to back out. But at one point,” she said with a giggle, “I was looking over my shoulder like “So where are your best friends? Ok. Anyone? Anyone?
“I mean, once this is over I won’t be able to pick up my 2-year-old for 6 weeks. But she could die without it. Of course, I’m going to give her a kidney.”
A show at Trustus and a role in The House of Blue Leaves brought Wyche back to South Carolina from New York for two days of testing which finalized her physical and mental fitness for such an extraordinary experience. The date for the surgery was random. “It was either November 12th or the day before Thanksgiving,” she said. “I picked November 12th.”
Her husband, Poynor, has been “incredibly supportive.” They met, not surprisingly, when they collaborated on a theatre project. They didn’t date at the time; Poynor was married but had separated from his wife. Wyche mused she’d always wanted to marry “someone like Dean Poynor.” Funny how things work out.
The couple resides on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Poynor is an accomplished playwright, and Wyche calls herself a stay-at-home mom. “My work has taken a backseat to being a mom,” she said without a hint of regret. Wyche said the pace of film and television the past couple years has allowed her to continue working and enjoy quality time with her son. “I haven’t pursued work as fervently as I did before. Now that he’s (Elrod) getting a little older… and after the kidney thing…. I’ll get back into it.
“I audition more than I work,” she laughed. “But I could definitely try harder to get in the room.”
Fans of the Law & Order series Law & Order: SVU would have seen Wyche early this year in an episode titled “Jersey Breakdown,” when she played a hard-ass warden of a juvenile detention center.
Wyche was spending a recent Saturday morning moving around her neighborhood anonymously having a mani-pedi and a casual coffee and croissant – “Oooh, one with cheese,” she told the guy working the counter. She was making preparations to return to Charleston where she will remain until the day after Thanksgiving.
Doing all the normal things one does before giving away a body part, I suppose.
She doesn’t allow herself much time for reflection. For what it all means to her, her family and to Wilson’s. “Maybe one day I’ll really think about it,” she said. “But, right now, I won’t let myself be still with it.”
Which explained her discomfort at a recent benefit at Trustus where both Wilson and Wyche were the center of attention. One had to suspect it was the only time the two women have felt uncomfortable onstage.
In mid-October, an all-star cast of performers turned out for a one-time only Torch Cabaret on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus . And the production was a love fest.
The artists performed old familiar numbers as well as some kidney and organ-donor inspired new ones. The evening offered equal amounts of laughter and seriousness. Columbia performer Steven Thompson had some memorable one-liners in the song Masochism Tango. “This shit’s gonna hurt,” he shouted above the audience’s raucous laughter.
Columbia theatre veteran Paul Kaufmann, the evening’s moderator, said privacy policies prevented the two patients’ friends and families from keeping up with the other during surgery. “I can’t believe it,” he said referring to HIPAA rules about patient privacy. “I mean they’re sharing a fucking kidney but they can’t share surgery updates.”
Again, the laughter. The audience, at times, had to jolt itself back into the life and death reality that was the evening’s theme. But who knew organ donation and health care could be so much fun. Yeah, right.
There were songs of reflection and about the “women we are now and the girls we were then.” When Wilson and Wyche took the stage briefly to take a bow, Wilson said: “There are certain people who do things like this and don’t ask. It’s second nature. Luckily, there was a person willing to do that for me.”
As the two embraced on-stage, Wyche responded: “My life is totally fucking different.” To which Wilson deadpanned: “You’re welcome.”
They brought the house down.
As the countdown to surgery begins, both women have taken nothing for granted and have kept relentlessly optimistic attitudes.
Wilson has permitted herself quiet moments of introspection. She recalled the first one which came after she had been in the hospital about a week during the initial period of diagnosis. Her husband had slept every night in a hospital chair, and she insisted he go home and get a good night’s sleep.
“Mom stayed with me in the hospital,” Wilson said of Boyd. “It was about 3 a.m, and Mom and I had some illuminating conversations about life. The thing that struck me was that I didn’t want to die. That the purpose for me and my life was to love and be loved. I feel like I do that.
“And I knew that if I did die, the most important thing I realized was very freeing. It took a lot of the burden off of having to prove anything. It’s made a big difference for me as a human being. This gift has brought me comfort that whatever happens, I did it right.”
Wilson’s plans for the future have her focused on her post-surgery timetable at PURE. She’s directing Glengarry Glen Ross, which opens January 23, 2015. “Since I’m directing, I can just sit in a chair with a riding crop,” she said, a hint of that Russian Transport character creeping back in.
She’s planning to perform in Outside Mullingar at PURE in March, 2015. In the spring of 2015, she will play “Brooke Wyeth” in Other Desert Cities, on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus. Her uncle, Ron, will play her father; her stepmother Kay will play her aunt. The show will be directed by her dad.
It will be a homecoming, no doubt, with plenty of open arms. When she said “let’s get this show on the road,” it wasn’t altogether clear whether she was referring to the surgery or the theatre. Either way, she calls herself fortunate. “I know how lucky I am to have been born who I am,” she said. “I have a family who loves me. I’m fairly intelligent, have a husband and, thank God, good insurance.”
Wyche is also making plans once the recovery period has passed. “I’m going to cut my hair, and go through a re-branding.” She sounded almost excited. She will celebrate her 45th birthday November 21st in Charleston. It will, no doubt, be one to remember.
“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said when he signed into existence the National Endowment for the Arts. “For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”
For a group of people in South Carolina, a dedication to the performing arts has strengthened a community, launched careers, provided food for the soul and fueled passion. The passion motivated an actor to summon the courage to ask for help. It moved another actor to provide an extraordinary gift. And it challenged a community to respond. Ultimately, what that passion may have done, inadvertently, is laid the foundation that saved a woman’s life.
Break a leg.
Copyright 2014 Sheryl McAlister.