“Midair”: a mother’s grief leaves us hanging

You in Midair is subtitled An Elegy for a Daughter. The daughter is Rebecca Schaeffer, a bright young actress who was murdered on her doorstep in 1989. This one-woman show is written and performed by Rebecca’s mother, Danna.

The title and subtitle set up some powerful expectations — powerful enough to pull me into the theatre. The phrase “you in midair” comes from a well-known Sondheim classic, Send in the Clowns. It’s a lament for mistimed love that begins:
Isn’t it rich?
Aren’t we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
you in midair …
It’s hard to imagine a more poignant image for the heart-rending situation of a parent grieving a lost child. And “an elegy” promises to take us there, invoking a poetic tradition for dealing with loss that goes back to Sappho and beyond.

Danna Schaeffer (photo: Owen Carey)

Danna Schaeffer has our empathy the moment the lights come up. She soon widens the connection with humor, a gentle, self-mocking irony. She recalls the joy she and her husband take in Rebecca, and in her brave determination to become an artist; she regales us with a mother-daughter trip to Venice taken while Rebecca is on a filming break.

But we know what’s coming. And it comes. A stalker lurks in the bushes, Rebecca answers the doorbell expecting a courier with a script, a gunshot. The bright young life is torn away, rending all the lives close to her. Schaeffer holds us mesmerized as she recounts
the stunned pilgrimage she and her husband make to the places — West Hollywood, an apartment, a body — where their daughter has just been.

Schaeffer also tells of the days and slow years after, and how she eventually enters her new life, the one with the hole in it. Doing all this, she takes what was a brief piece of celebrity news and gives it context, makes it a human story (far more real than the legends woven about media heroes). This she does well.

What Schaeffer does not do is deliver an elegy. Like its sister word “eulogy,” an elegy focuses on the person who has died; it draws us into their living (or at least remembered) presence, making us feel them and thus appreciate what we — and the world — have lost. In You in Midair, we learn some things about Rebecca, but we do not come away feeling we know her. She is not the focus.

We do come to know her mother. This play is about her, and her experience — less an elegy than a lament, like Demeter recounting her wanderings in search of lost  Persephone.

Another thing Schaeffer does not do is “lose it.” Demeter tears her hair in grief, and lays the earth waste in her anger; Schaeffer (as writer and as actor) veers away from emotional extremes. But we know grief is one of the most extreme states we humans ever experience — and when this mother tells us about it, rather than walking us into it, we feel cheated. No catharsis, no relief.

In one of the most effective moments, Schaeffer segues from a friend’s well-meant advice, urging her to cry more, into an excellent reading of Hamlet’s “I know not seems” speech (Act 1, Scene 2). This gives us, I believe, the key to Schaeffer’s own character. Forced to carry an enormous and laceratingly painful burden through life, she will talk about it, and not keep silent; but she will not engage it. It feels not only too large for anger (as she says), but too large to survive if let loose. This is not at all an unusual response to overwhelming trauma, and she can hardly be faulted for it.

It does, however, set definite limits on what the play can be and do.
Because it is not an elegy, a more accurate subtitle —  “A Mother’s Lament,” “Life with a Hole in It” ? — would better prepare us for what we experience. And the main title is so elegant and delicate a choice that it really demands to be addressed in the text; delicate though it is, it is a strong enough metaphor to carry the whole story.
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You in Midair, written and performed by Danna Schaeffer, directed by Julie Akers.
Presented at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood 90038.

June 14 (Thursday), 10:00,
June 16 (Saturday), 8:00,
June 17 (Sunday), 4:00.

Tickets: <www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/5036>