UW News

February 21, 2008

Physician, musician, composer, actress all one in ‘Charisma’

UW News

The dynamics between mind and body are ever-present in the life and work of Hope Wechkin, who is a UW physician but also a musician, composer, writer and performer.

And so the mysteries of that connection are also evident in Charisma, the musical one-woman, multi-character play Wechkin will perform at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater, tomorrow through March 1.

But there are other themes, too, in this play written by poet Margaret Shafer and directed by the UW School of Drama’s Cathy Madden, with music composed by Wechkin herself. There are magical realism and the area between reality and fantasy, life and death; the power of music and the trials and transcendence of medical patients. A certain painting by Chagall. And always hovering nearby, the idea of leaving the Earth in flight.

Wechkin is a faculty member in the UW Department of Family Medicine and medical director of Evergreen Hospice in Kirkland. She’s a family doctor who specializes in end-of-life and palliative care. Wechkin discussed the play, its origins and her own history in a recent interview.

Charisma is about a hospital patient being treated for lupus and how she deals with an assortment of visitors she gets, all played by Wechkin. These include a crystal healer, a janitor, a teenager with leukemia, an egotistic doctor and even an animal, a Brazilian tapir. Wechkin wears a hospital-style gown and her only costume changes are her shoes.

She said the play is about half spoken and half sung. “I sing and play the violin and mandolin and some piano, and some cool percussion instruments.”

The patient is visited by her brother, who brings her a poster of Chagall’s painting “Blue Violinist,” which, Wechkin said, “Serves as the point of departure for her dreams and imaginings,” including fantasies of flight.

She said she was motivated in part to a one-woman show by seeing actress Lily Tomlin’s solo play The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was similarly written by another woman, Jane Wagner. The one-person form seemed best for the material in Charisma.

Music was in Wechkin’s life long before medicine. She started playing the violin at 4, the daughter of “very sane” parents who, despite her talents, did not nudge her toward the stage. She attended Yale, where her interests widened to include Eastern European music, styles of which are reflected in the play. She sang in, and then conducted, the Yale Slavic Chorus.

Uncertain of her future after college, she rode a Greyhound bus to Seattle in 1990. A mind-body connection at work again, she took voice lessons even as “a hunger for an understanding of biology” sent her to Bellevue Community College. She came to believe that medicine was not as cut-and-dried as she had thought and that it might hold a place for her. Three years after college, she entered medical school at the UW.

Wechkin met Shafer — an award-winning poet but a therapist by profession — in her work as a family physician, when referring patients for help. The two became friends. Wechkin’s experiences as a physician and Shafer’s personal times as a patient came together and themes began to emerge in their conversations that would live on in the play.

“I wanted to present something that gave an idea of the medical world and the intersection of medicine and music, and the role of the imagination,” Wechkin said.

Wechkin wisely did not say whether the patient dies at the end of Charisma. She said only, “She comes to some kind of reckoning with her situation by the end of the show.”

Medicine is Wechkin’s profession, but she is multitalented if ever the word could be used to describe someone. She said she may return to the themes of Charisma in the future. “I have a feeling that this is the beginning of something, not the end of something,” she said.

Madden, who directs, wrote of the play in an e-mail, “It’s funny, thought-provoking and deeply entertaining.” She added, “What sneaks up on you as the show’s music (Hope wrote it, sings and does all the instrumentals), the beautifully realized poetry of Shafer’s words, and the delightful specificity of the acting, come together, is that the show itself is a metaphor for the power of pursuing your own dreams.”

Charisma plays Friday through Saturday Feb. 22-23 and Feb. 29 to March 1, at ACT Theater, 700 Union St. Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors, available through ACT Theater, 700 Union St., www.acttheatre.org.

The play is being supported by the Washington Composers Forum and the UW School of Medicine Palliative Care Program. For more information, visit online at www.washingtoncomposers.org.