By Chris Haring

A Vermont playwright explores the process of choosing medical aid in dying through the lens of a close friend diagnosed with terminal cancer

In a recent conversation with Mikaela Lefrak on Vermont Public’s Vermont Edition radio program, playwright Rob Mermin discussed his new production, Act 39 (currently showing at the Haybarn Theatre at Plainfield’s Goddard College). 

Based on the real-life bond between the author and his friend Bill Morancy, it explores the process of receiving a terminal illness diagnosis and ultimately choosing medical aid in dying, amidst broader themes of enduring friendship and the human experience. 

Mermin told Lefrak the neighbors consistently engaged in sports and other activities until “suddenly, it was one day [Morancy] basically collapsed to the floor in pain with cramps,” and Mermin rushed him to the local hospital.

He described the shock they both experienced at his friend’s subsequent diagnosis: Stage 4 pancreatic cancer that metastasized throughout his body. “Fairly quickly, the doctor asked if there was anyone close to [Morancy] who could help him through the process,” he said, adding, “And he looked over at me and, you know, I nodded my head, yeah, I’ll do what I can to help him.”

Eventually, an oncology nurse mentioned physician-assisted dying as an option to go along with the hospice and palliative care that Morancy would receive. “We did not know anything about Act 39 [and] had heard vague rumors about death with dignity,” Mermin said, adding, “It was a learning experience for us.”

By the final days of Morancy’s life, Mermin’s role evolved considerably. “I was there alone with him at the very end as he took the [end-of-life medication],” Mermin said.

Inspired by these interactions, he felt compelled to transform the narrative into a dramatic form “so audiences could see the characters, hear the… conversations that went on between me and Bill,” he said.

Notably, Mermin keeps Act 39’s mood light, depicting the intimate friendship filled with laughter and genuine joy he and Morancy experienced together. “[T]here’s a lot of humor throughout” the show, he said, adding, “[I]t is definitely not a downer.”

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools to shed light on the medical aid-in-dying movement, and humanizes the experience in relatable ways. By bringing Morancy’s story to life on stage, Mermin invites audiences to engage emotionally with their journey. This theatrical approach connects with viewers, providing a fresh perspective and igniting meaningful conversations surrounding the right to die.

Read the full interview below:

New play explores personal side of Vermont’s medical aid in dying law

By Mikaela LefrakTedra Meyer

Published June 27, 2023 at 3:02 PM EDT

A new play at Goddard College tells a deeply personal story about Vermont’s medical aid in dying law.

Rob Mermin, the founder of Circus Smirkus, is premiering his first play, “Act 39,” at the Haybarn Theatre at Goddard College in Plainfield.

The play is based on the real-life bond that Mermin had with Bill Morancy, and the process of Morancy choosing to end his life with the assistance of medication after being diagnosed with cancer.

“It’s about the friendship between these two very best buddies who are confronting mortality face to face,” Mermin said on Vermont Edition.

Host Mikaela Lefrak asks about the friendship at the heart of the play, the end of Bill’s life, and the process of bringing the story to the stage. Highlights of their conversation are below. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mikaela Lefrak: I’d love to start with your friend Bill, who is at the center of this play. Could you tell us a little bit about him? What was he like?

Rob Mermin: His name is Bill Morancy. He was the projectionist at the Savoy Theater here in Montpelier. And we both lived in Montpelier. I moved into an apartment house, and one week later, he moved into the same apartment house, to an apartment adjacent to mine. And that’s how we got to know each other. This was back in 2007.

And so you became friends. And then Bill was diagnosed with cancer. What happened next?

Well, Bill was 70 years old at the time. And we had almost every day been playing games, we had played tennis, played catch out in the backyard. And suddenly, it was one day he basically collapsed to the floor in pain with cramps. And we immediately took him to the hospital. And seemingly out of the blue, he got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Stage 4, metastasized throughout his whole body.

His immediate reaction to that was to say, I know what that means, it’s a death sentence.

What did it feel like for you as his friend to hear that news?

Well, it was a shock. I was in the hospital room, and the doctor came in and gave him the diagnosis. And one of the things Bill said right away was, now I see things, I see the world from behind a glass wall. And it was shocking.

Fairly quickly, the doctor asked if there was anyone close to him who could help him through the process. And he looked over at me and, you know, I nodded my head, yeah, I’ll do what I can to help him.

And when did the conversation about doing what you could to help him shift towards helping him end his life through medical aid in dying?

Yeah, initially, the doctor did not mention Act 39. This was in 2015. The death with dignity law, Act 39, was passed in 2013. So it was still relatively new. It wasn’t until an oncology nurse came in to answer Bill’s questions that she hesitated at first, and then mentioned Act 39 as an option to go along with hospice care and the palliative care that Bill would get through hospice.

Do you remember what your initial reaction was when you and Bill first started talking about him potentially using medication to hasten his death?

We did not know anything about Act 39. We had heard vague rumors about death with dignity. But we did not know about the protocols. What was the process of utilizing Act 39? And we had a lot of questions for the oncology nurse and for hospice. And it was a learning experience for us.

When you ask about my first reaction, I remember thinking, this is wrong, I should be the one in the hospital bed. You know, I was always more frail than Bill. He used to be driving me to the hospital for various appointments and checkups. In his 70-year life he had never once spent overnight in a hospital. So this was like a switcheroo in my mind: it should have been me getting a diagnosis instead of Bill.

When did you decide to start writing about this process?

After Bill died, a hospice nurse and Patient Choices Vermont — which is the organization that helped pass this legislation — they asked me if I would be willing to talk with some families who were going through the same situation and trying to make the same choices.

They just asked if I would tell my story, which I did. And it’s a very moving thing to talk with other families who are going through the same process. It’s very conflicting, very emotional. Is this something that we should do? Or should we not? That final decision is made by the patient, the patient is always in control.

And after talking with some of the families and telling my story, I realized that this is a story that needs to be put in a dramatic form. So audiences could see the characters hear the dialogue, conversations that went on between me and Bill. And that’s when I started to write the play. And it took a few years to really come up with a final script.

You were one of the closest people to him at this tender time.

We considered each other best buddies. We palled around. In fact, people in town thought maybe we were a couple, which we were not.

As Bill’s character says in the play, there’s no real name in our culture for two older straight guys who pal around with each other. And I say, well, that’s it. We’re pals. We’re best buddies. And we both acknowledge to each other that it was extremely rare for both of us to find a best friend so late in life.

How lucky. 

Extremely lucky. We never argued. You know, that’s why in all the games we played, like playing catch, we never kept score, there was no points, there was no competition. We never argued. We were very different characters. You know — and this comes out in the play — my character loves to talk about paranormal and metaphysical things. Dowsing, telepathy, remote viewing. And Bill, he was the complete skeptic. So we banter about these things, you know, they’re not heated discussions.

And in the play, even though the theme of Act 39 is what it’s all about, the real story is about the friendship between these two older men. And there’s a lot of humor throughout the play. As one reviewer said, it is definitely not a downer.

Was that important to you? You have your background in the circus, in Circus Smirkus, to be specific, you’re a clown and a mime. Was it important to bring humor into the story, even one about death?

Very important, for two reasons. First, because it was very true to life. Bill and I would laugh, we would belly laugh. I would bang on the wall separating our apartments. And he would bang right back. And that was our signal for him to come over. And he would say, “OK, neighbor, what trick do you have for me today?” And I would show him a new magic trick that I’d be working on, you know, try it out on him and he would laugh. He loved that stuff.

And an interesting thing is that when he was 65, he ran away to the circus. He wanted to have a job as a concessionaire for one summer with Circus Smirkus. And he said afterwards it was the hardest job he’d ever had in his life. But he loved it. He loved the traditions of circus, the camaraderie and the adventure of traveling down the road.

Rob, could you tell us a little bit more about the specific role that you played for Bill when he was using medical aid in dying?

My role was as Bill’s support for whatever decision he makes, whether he would use the medical aid or not. And I had to go pick up the prescription, I had to drive a couple hours down to a pharmacy in Middlebury. And it was a very confusing, agitating time for me, you know. I had this little bag of pills sitting on the passenger seat as I was driving home and I would just glance over and see this bag of death sitting there. And all of this comes out in the play. And my role was really to help him with the process and the protocols of how to mix the powder from these pills. I was there alone with him at the very end as he took the drink.

So I was really his support. It was really an honor for me that he asked me to help him, and it felt like I was honoring him and he was honoring me by asking me to be there with him.

Your play about this experience, Act 39, opened last week. What has the response been? What have people been saying to you after they see it?

Oh, it’s amazing response. People are very moved. We all have some aspect of being familiar with death, whether it’s a relative or friend, and something that we go through ourselves eventually. And people wanted to know how real the scenes and the conversations were in the play. And I tell them, it’s extremely honest.

In his last month, when I’d go over to his apartment, we would have fabulous and fascinating conversations about life and death and art and science and politics and circus and films and dowsing. We covered everything. So when I would go back to my apartment, I would actually take notes of what had been said, because it was so fascinating. And a couple years later, when I started writing the play, I referred back to those notes. So I tell people that what they’re seeing on stage is extremely honest – every scene, and most of the dialogue, comes from real life.

Rob, what comes next for the show? Are you hoping to bring it to another theater?

I don’t really know what’s next. But everyone tells me that this play will have legs to go further outside of central Vermont. So we hope that we can attract some professional theaters around the state or beyond to mount a new production of this in the future, I think is a very important message to get out there at this point. And it’s a controversial issue. Vermont is only one of 10 states, I think, at this point, but every state is debating and arguing the issue. It’s a timely subject.

What has life been like without Bill?

When he died, I was in shock for a long time, but I’ve settled into how it was before I knew Bill. You know, I have a ton of friends, but to have a best friend who lived right next door, which allowed us to see each other every day — I miss that, I definitely miss that.