By Myki Jones
Thunder River Theatre Company recently debuted Cassidy Willey’s original piece, “As Close As I Can,” a show based on her personal experiences. Willey became a mother as she was dealing with the loss of her parents. The production, which runs 45 minutes, was first performed at the Denver Fringe Festival earlier this year. Audiences are granted an intimate look into Willey’s expressions of grief, new motherhood in the midst of said grief, and the process going forward. The project was conceived in 2019 with the Women’s Voices Project, a theater production by local nonprofit VOICES. In collaboration with VOICES executive director Renee Prince, the show became what it is today.
The production stars Cassidy in a one-woman performance, is directed by Prince, and performed with assistance from Kristin Carlson doing off-stage voice acting from the booth. Willey details the nostalgia and comfort she felt performing theater, and memories of performing with her parents, along with details of her childhood and her relationship with her parents as she was growing up. The show had limited props and primarily used the lighting to establish different moods, a simple yet powerful way to project the motives, emotions, and themes of each scene. Bright lights illuminate more comfortable emotions, while darker lights establish the heavier and afflictive moments of her story.
Cassidy did a wonderful job of portraying the ultimate transition in life that is pregnancy and how it suddenly differs when tragedy strikes. She spoke first about the loss of her father and the struggles she and her family faced during that period of time, then led into speaking about the loss of her mother and how it felt with the birth of her son with her mother’s health in decline.
Willey’s show gives audiences something that can’t quite be captured through the art of acting, which is a visceral and vulnerable take on being a mother and the hurt of losing one’s parents.
I admire respect and was left in awe by how Willey told her story. Grief looks different for every person, many say that it is a complicated process, and seeing the way Willey was able to share hers in a way that was not diluted to make others around her comfortable validated the idea that people need not feel bad about the way they deal with loss.
The two emotions that I feel Willey portrayed very well were helplessness and frustration. The frustration and the thoughts that came with it were first mentioned when Willey talked about the unsolicited advice she received about motherhood from total strangers. Again, all of this happened as she was trying to come to terms with her mother’s declining health.
Helplessness was portrayed movingly in the latter part of the show when Willey talked about dealing with the aftermath of her mother’s passing. Specifically, the way that people spoke to her about her mother, the arrangements that came afterward, and how she felt knowing that both of her parents were now gone.
What made the show especially worthwhile was that during this performance it felt as though Willey was speaking as if for herself, not as a story like most stories centered around grief that have a “light at the end of the tunnel” feel to them. Her story, and how she is still learning to live without two people she loved dearly, isn’t soft or light or even easy to sit through at times. However, everything that it is not, absolutely does not negate what it truly is.
It truly is a story that is true, raw, cathartic and mournful, nostalgic and bittersweet. While not exactly relatable, as one’s own experiences with grief and new parenthood may not look the same, it created a space for people to practice empathy. This show is absolutely worth the watch in spite of the emotions that are drawn up!
I truly hope that it has the chance to be performed in other theaters in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond. The talents of Willey as a performer in this production deserve to be seen on many stages.
“As Close as I Can” has three more performances at Thunder River Theatre; on Nov. 19, 20 and 21. To purchase tickets, get in touch with the company, make a donation, or get updates about upcoming productions, visit: www.thunderrivertheatre.com
The theater requires proof of full vaccination at the door and masks are required for all audience members.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Cassidy Willey’s production of her original play, “As Close as I Can,” premiered in the Roaring Fork Valley thanks to Thunder River Theatre Company and through collaboration with other artists in the acting community. The show, which is 45 minutes and a one-woman piece, started out as a 10-minute solo project titled “Mother.”
It was first conceived while Willey and director of the production, Renee Prince, were working together during the Women’s Voices Project in 2019. Although the show originated with nonprofit VOICES, it has grown into something entirely unique. With several vignettes lifted from its first iteration, the new production builds upon those moments of joy, astonishment, wonder, grief and, as Willey put it, “weird humor.”
This project was three years in the making for Willey, Prince and Kristin Carlson, the latest cast and crew.
Willey’s production is an intimate, raw and cathartic look into her experiences with grief and how she was becoming a mother as she was losing hers. The Willey family was, and is, well-known in the community of the Roaring Fork Valley. Willey mentioned this was an exciting yet vulnerable experience.
“To get up on stage and share the most painful experiences of my life thus far, and to share that alone is pretty crazy. Just to take that on, share my story, keep it together and do all the technical things of acting,” said Willey. “Yet all those technical details have nothing to do with the fact that this happened to me.”
The production was originally performed at Denver Fringe Festival earlier this year, and Willey stated that she is over the moon with gratitude to have the show at TRTC. Having had to shelf the project in 2020 when the pandemic hit Willey felt disheartened, but once she revisited the work in the fall of 2020, she decided that she was not ready to let go of it. Early this year she reached out to Prince and Carlson, who helped bring the piece to a live audience.
“I thought, ‘this is something I still want to share,” Willey said. “Then we had the opportunity to bring it back to TRTC, which was the goal. I really consider this my artistic home. It was a COVID hole that I fell into but was able to eventually crawl out of with the help of my friends, Renee and Kristin, and to do with it what we had hoped to when we started.”
Prince said she felt a responsibility for helping bring Willey’s story to life and doing it justice.
“For me, it was always about keeping tabs on the bigger picture [beyond the writing process] and continually reminding ourselves that this is her story and continuing to honor that on stage,” said Prince when asked if she perceived any risks taking on such a personal story.
Script consultant and voice from the booth for the show, Carlson also spoke to the talents of both Willey and Prince when discussing the show.
“I think there were challenges, and I think the greatest one of course is someone telling a very personal story in a public way. Cassidy has brought so much strength and insight and generosity of spirit in everything she is sharing. I think she has blazed a trail in a lot of ways of theatrical storytelling, taking the personal and making it universal. That is something she has done amazingly well in a story that is uniquely hers. She has toeholds for anyone who has ever been human and suffered loss and found ways to heal. For me, that’s the greatest triumph of this production,” said Carlson. “It has really been an honor to work in such a collaborative way with such amazing people.” She also praised Prince’s directorial skills and the lighting design by Sean Jefferies.
The message of the show, according to Wiley, is of the universal human experience of grief that everyone shares when they experience loss.
“It is often said that the only way to deal with grief is to go through it. You can’t avoid it, you can’t ignore it and you can’t skip over it,” she said. “My hope is that the audience is open to taking that emotional journey and they are left feeling less alone.”
Willey said she is curious to see where this project can go beyond TRTC.
As far as future projects, “I don’t know if I’ll delve back into playwriting anytime in the near future, although I do see it in the long term,” she said. “I do love writing, so I want to continue writing. Whether that’s short stories or a memoir or whatever that may be.”