A scene from Cause of Failure
Description: When Maggie was born, she pulled her mother’s heart out with her. So begins a young woman’s magical journey through terminal illness and the limits of love.
First Produced: 2012
Date Added: 11/13/2012
Content Advisory: Contains strong language
Coming of Age ·
Religion and Spirituality ·
Death and the Afterlife ·
Requires/Supports Sophisticated Multimedia/Technical Elements ·
Sickness and Mental Illness ·
Grief and Mourning ·
Characters are Mostly Young Adults ·
Large Cast Size
3 Acts, 110 Minutes
4 Females, 3 Males, 5 Gender Neutral
Cause of Failure is fully protected by copyright law and is subject to royalty. All inquiries concerning production, publication, reprinting or use of this play in any form should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the Author:
Years ago, I dreamed I was drowning in a blue sea. I began to panic - until I realized I could breathe underwater. I swam with fish and took lungfuls of cool ocean. It was the most joyous dream I’ve ever had.
As a literal-minded child, this dream provided my first realization that imagination has the power to invert physical laws and transcend scientific fact. As I grew up and was confronted with sickness, loss and the absurd industry of medicine, I drew heavily on imagination, fact and faith to guide me through. It was from that liminal space between science and soul that I wrote CAUSE OF FAILURE.
Sickness is biological. It’s scientific. And yet the experience is intimate, invasive, and psychologically jarring. How do we navigate a biological crisis, as humans who can think and feel and dream? How do we comprehend the permanence of death, mobilizing our imaginations to hold on to those we love?
It’s a tricky emotional terrain…one that many of us will traverse in our lifetimes. This play is my response to a minutely personal experience, and yet I know it is, and will continue to be, widely shared.
The play is to be performed without scene breaks or intermission. Each segment should flow into the next, like the flow of water, blood or memory.
In terms of staging, simple is good. The play was written to exist in the mind of the viewer first and foremost. Much of the magic realism lies in the stage directions, which should be approached more as literary prompts than literal ones. Think of them as playable material, whether you depict them exactly, connotatively, or by simply having the Chorus speak them out loud.
The play invites an elaborate media design, if so desired. Puppetry, dance, and original music can also contribute to the magic. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for keeping it simple and letting the audience imagine for themselves. Avoid demonstration in favor of evocation whenever possible.
An understanding of the nature, symptoms, and treatment of congestive heart failure is essential. I’ve included a select glossary of terms at the back of the play as a starting point for research. Much of the medical jargon is accurate and realistic. Many of the events and images surrounding the jargon are expressionistic or surrealistic. Embrace the dichotomy.
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Original Production Information
CAUSE OF FAILURE was first presented in workshop at the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Theater Institute on November 30, 2005.
DAUGHTER: Amanda Pawlik
WOMAN: Analise Hartnett
DOCTOR: Tasha Gordon-Solmon
HEART: Kate Michaud
CRUELLA: Laura Wiese
CHORUS: Leta Tremblay, Alexandra Bassett, Keara Harman
DIRECTOR: Kymberlie Stansell
CAUSE OF FAILURE was developed as part of FullStop Collective’s Play Development Series, culminating in a staged reading on July 30, 2011.
MAGGIE: Elizabeth Seldin
ANN: Nancy Nagrant Palomares
DOCTOR: Parker Laventer
HEART: Diana Oh
BILL: Christopher Norwood
CORY: Nic Grelli
PAUL: Abraham Jean Pierre Ampka
CRUELLA: Amelia Campbell
DIRECTOR: Leta Tremblay
CAUSE OF FAILURE was produced by FullStop Collective in association with the New York International Fringe Festival on August 10, 2012. with the following cast:
MAGGIE: Lauren Weinberg
ANN: Sally Burtenshaw
DOCTOR: Lauren Hennessy
HEART: Louiza Collins
BILL: Nick DeSimone
CORY: Kevin Bunge
PAUL: Christopher Norwood
CRUELLA: Sam Given
CHORUS: Katelyn Collins, Eve Marie Mugar, Maggie Raymond, Emily Rupp
DIRECTOR: Leta Tremblay
Chris Kadis Moscato
Megan Weaver’s Cause of Failure is a deeply personal story told with verve and sincerity by Full Stop Collective. While complicated theatricality bedecks the proceedings, in the end it is a show concerned with the simplest of things: a woman getting weaker, a daughter getting older, a heart struggling to beat.
Maggie Johns, the play’s narrator, is a young woman with talent and dreams of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, her future is threatened by her mother’s congestive heart failure and the looming reality of having to become her primary caretaker before even graduating high school. As her mother’s condition worsens, Maggie discourses in a dreamlike manner about a host of things: the nature of the disease, her mother’s life and history, the family dynamics at play. Meanwhile, her mother’s heart, embodied by a mostly-mute actress in a flowing red wrap, stomps and interrupts, forever a troublemaker who refuses to comply with Maggie or her mother’s wishes. The visual metaphor is lovely and effective, and just one of the many Weaver employs in telling her story.
Director Leta Tremblay and her design team do an admirable job, especially under festival constraints, bringing the script’s various wild conceits to life. The impossible is meant to happen again and again: a car fills up with water and segues into an underwater ballet, a baby is born holding its mother’s heart (which then becomes a Christmas turkey), a villainous cartoon character comes to life to serve as a home health aide. Not every idea is (nor can be) fully manifested, and indeed there are times when the play sags under its own weight, but the imaginative work on display all goes towards displaying Maggie’s sense of beauty and wonder in the face of personal tragedy, as well as the difficulties she has in telling her mother’s story.
While the ensemble is not as consistent as one might wish, there are some fantastic performances. Christopher Norwood, as a sympathetic community college professor, brings a jolt of energy right when it’s needed and both he and Kevin Bunge (as Maggie’s brother Cory) have a charming, easy-going nature that help ground the piece. Lauren Hennessy captures the concerned insouciance of a busy physician wonderfully, and the chorus, a quartet of women who serve as anything from nurses to fish to ventricles, is wonderfully confident and varied. Respect must also be given to Sam Given, who vigorously navigates some of the most treacherous high heels I’ve ever seen (although I wanted more of a payoff of some kind for his outrageous character). And Lauren Weinberg as Maggie is a graceful and endearing center. Her journey is a difficult one, but she shoulders the show capably, and never overplays what could be a maudlin exercise in mourning.
There are scenes here of, for want of a less on-the-nose descriptor, heartbreaking power, particularly for those who have had to deal with a loved one’s deteriorating condition. There are also quibbles to be had—the staging could stand to be a bit more dovetailed, as there are a few too many moments of internal down-time that make the show feel a bit, well, bradycardic—but any nitpicking pales in the light of Cause of Failure’s greater purpose. This is a triumphantly sincere piece of theatre—so much so that Full Stop will be donating a percentage of its box office to Help Hope Live, an organization which helps support patients and their families while they wait for organ transplants.
That giving spirit saturates the work onstage, as well. Weaver is putting her heart in your hands, and that’s the greatest gift any playwright can bestow.
reviewed at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival
Review by Anna Van Valin for New York Theatre Review (2012)
I have a tough time with Sick Mom Plays. If they are done well, I’m a wreck by the end. If they are done poorly, they are maudlin, infantilizing, and really annoying to those of us who have actually dealt with sick moms. Luckily, director Leta Tremblay never lets that happen, and this remarkable production of Megan Weaver’s play stays buoyant, truthful and devastating for it’s whole two hours.
Read the review.
Cause of Failure
When the diagnosis came, I was thirteen. An eighth grader, learning to cradle my supposedly invincible mother. Doctors kept telling her that you just needed rest and antibiotics. How could we know at the time that what she actually needed was a fucking diuretic.
Watch the language, Mags.
Doctors. Four months of coughing to exhaustion before they made the right diagnosis. So incompetent!
They did all right with you.
No, I’m serious. It was brilliant, Maggie. You just can’t know until you’ve had your own… They were incredible. You were incredible. Look.
(ANN stands and lays down on exam table, feet up.)
Ugh, oh man, I don’t want to watch this -
(Enter DOCTOR. The lightning bolt has transformed DOCTOR into an enthusiastic, youthful medical newbie. DOCTOR enters rolling up her sleeves and practically skipping. ANN screams.)
Heyo, baby time! All right, Mrs. Johns. I see the head. Beautiful. Now just push for me one more time, annnnnnnd --
Good! Keep at it, Mrs. Johns! Baby’s crowned and looking good, just one more push!
(ANN bellows again.)
Nice work, Mrs. Johns! Deep breath, you ready? One more push! Onnnne, twoooo–
Stop calling me Mrs. Johns!
(The Final Push)
(Baby is born. ANN loses 50 pounds.)
Congratulations Mrs. Johns! It’s a beautiful baby girl!
Way to go Mom!
You take it easy, Mrs. Johns. I’ll get this little one cleaned up.
Can I see her?
(Lifts the “baby” up for ANN to see. But in fact, there is no baby. The doctor is holding a full-sized beating heart. At the same moment, lights rise on HEART. She and MAGGIE lock eyes in silent, wary recognition.)
Oops, honey, time to let go of that now. Mrs. Johns? You know this baby’s got your heart? Guess that explains why you had such a hard time of it, huh? Just pulled it right out with her, didn’t she! Okay, babygirl, let go now… Huh. This kiddo’s got a vise grip if I ever saw one. Oh well. Here you go, mommy!
Um, isn’t that a problem… if she’s got my heart like that?
Don’t worry about it. Happens more often than you’d think.