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Communique: "The Greatest Gift" | True Story Onstage At Theatre Now

Zach Hanner
"The Greatest Gift" cast

It's a holiday story about...a kidney. Zach Hanner, Artistic Director of Theatre Now, has written a play  about his family's experience with a medical crisis. According to reviewers, the show is both poignant and funny. 

Shows are Friday & Saturday, 12/15-16 at 7:00; Sunday, 12/17 at 5:00; and Friday & Saturday, 12/22-23 at 7:00. Listen to our interview with Zach above and see our extended conversation below.  

Gina: This is not your first time writing a show.

Zach: No. I've written several shows since I've been at the theater in the last five years. Some have been historically derived from real stories, like Summers at Seabreeze. The first play I did for TheaterNOW was A Swing and A Miss because Alisa Harris, our owner and producer, is a huge baseball fan and she had commissioned someone else to write a baseball themed romantic comedy and that person bailed. So it was left to me to come up with an idea to fulfill this basic conceit that she had come up with. Then I wrote The Gentleman Pirate based on the true story of Stede Bonnet, who was a contemporary Black Beard. That was more of a comedy musical type show. I've adapted a number of things for the stage and this is the first original adult piece I've done in some time and it was based on my family's real experience four years ago with my wife donating a kidney to her brother.

He had developed an auto immune disease and eventually was on dialysis and in need of a kidney transplant. After much debate amongst our family, my wife, Dagmar, was the person who basically put her foot down and said, I'm doing this and you will all support me but I'm the real legitimate candidate for this procedure. And fortunately for us the experience was very positive. Everyone is healthy and continues to be so.

Credit Zach Hanner
Actors Hal Cosec & Eleanor Stafford in "The Greatest Gift"

Gina: What kind of challenges did you face in writing this script?

Zach: There are a lot of inherent challenges, like you don't want to portray someone in a way that they would be offended or anything like that. So I went to Clyde Edgerton, who I've been fortunate enough to collaborate with on a number of projects over the last few years, and knowing that he wrote so wonderfully about his family, I asked him some advice.

He suggested swapping genders. If you have an aunt who's a heavy drinker and goes off on reality television, give that to another character, to an uncle or a cousin or someone like that, so that person doesn't recognize themselves and the actual relationship they have to each character. So one of my biggest challenges was writing the show so as not to make anyone upset. And then I took this larger overarching story of the kidney donation and then I incorporated a lot of our own family stories that have occurred over the last 25 years and some of them even from before I was with my wife. And in fact, I created a character out of whole cloth based on someone who I'd never even met before but I had heard so many crazy stories about this guy over the years that I decided to make him a character in the show.

Gina: I hear this is a touching story, but I've also heard it's funny.

Zach: Oh yeah. Our family is a very funny group people and they have wonderful tales to tell. And when we get together at the holidays I started realizing that we don't talk about Christmas. We don't talk about previous holidays or whatever. We talk about everything else that's going on or has gone on in our lives and we talk about big picture subjects and my relatives are really funny and smart, wonderful people. And it was very easy to take their stories and weave them into the overall fabric of the show and garner a few laughs here and there. It also helps that I have fantastic actors in the cast who were very skilled with comedic timing and are very likable performers on stage so.

Gina: Is the character of "Zach" in the show?

Zach: He is. And I'm very, very pleased with the job that Mathis Turner has done in portraying me. He's a wee bit younger than me, but I asked about every other middle aged actor that I knew in Wilmington- everybody was involved in something. I'm sure a lot of people are laughing that I cast a young handsome guy as me. But he's been fantastic and Eleanor Stafford is playing the role of my wife in the show. It has been really a revelation. I knew she was a wonderful, talented performer and had worked with her husband, John Stafford, in a number of pieces in the past. But Eleanor's been tremendous. I'd also like to commend Henry Stachowicz, who plays the character based on my son, and who is actually friends with my son. That's been a wonderful thing to watch him grow. He's been my student over the last five years and to put him into this role and watch him really do a wonderful job and take it very seriously and be a total young professional- I'm very proud of him for that.

Gina: So when writing a play about your own life, you're so close to the subject. Did you give it to someone else to read? How did you make sure that it made sense from an outsider's viewpoint?

Zach: Sure. Well the main person who I gave it to read was my wife. I wanted her to be happy with her portrayal. It's kind of hard for her not to come across as the hero here because of her selfless act of course. But one of the things that we had to contend with was the fact that she would often read a passage and say, Well this didn't happen that way, or, There needs to be X Y and Z in the show. And I had to sort of put it into context as a writer. Yeah, it didn't happen this way because everything turned out great. And if everything is going along swimmingly and works perfectly then the actual play loses dramatic tension, it loses the audience, it doesn't come across as quite as interesting. The show needed to have levels and waves of sadness and elation and concern.

So in order to make it palatable for a theater audience, I had to muck around a little bit with the time line, with some parts of the relationship. You know, my wife never really got angry and called her brother names. But in this show, that needed it. It needed a blow up moment where someone gets mad at someone else and calls them out on not sharing and not being forthcoming with all of the details of their condition. I've been really, really fortunate to have some wonderful performers to bring this story to the stage. And as a result they've developed a wonderful family dynamic as well- as you always do, I think, in a play. Especially a play that has a long run. But they've really grown to like each other a great deal and play their roles to perfection.

Gina: And folks can have dinner with this show...

Zach: Our chef, Denise Gordon, has prepared four amazing entrees for the show. We have a seafood dish, a turkey dish, an amazing pork chop, and then a vegetarian dumpling dish. And for those who don't want to necessarily purchase the full price ticket for the meal, we also have show only tickets that are just to watch the show. Of course, we do have a full bar to offer. And we also have free valet parking for anyone who doesn't want to park too far away from the venue. We'll have someone go park your car for you and bring it back to you right in front of the theater.

Gina: And Zach, how long did it take you to write this play?

Zach: It took about a year's worth of brainstorming and outlining and ideas and then the actual writing of the show took about six weeks and then I went back in and did another maybe six weeks of edits and tightening up and tuning up the show a little bit and then after hearing it- that's the wonderful thing about directing a show that you've written- after hearing it in rehearsals I also continued to make edits and changes, which really was a plus for the show, I think, because sometimes we fall in love with our own words as writers and think, Oh this thing is so great, and then you see it up on stage and realize maybe it needs to be changed or something else.

Especially if it's something that I've written, I'm not the type of writer who is a dictator. If someone has a pitch or an idea of something that they'd like to try or do, I'm always about it. I think that's what comes from being part of an improvisational comedy group for a long time. Everybody's ideas are good, you know, and I don't always take them, but it's always worth it to listen to them.

Gina: This is a poignant story. Do you still feel emotion?

Zach: Absolutely, yeah. I cried in rehearsals and I have cried in seeing the show. And again, I think part of that was because I'm so close to it and it was, for me, a scary moment. Even though everything went according to schedule and everything turned out the best possible scenario, there was still a lot to be worried about. My son, who was 9 at the time, was also very worried about it. I wrote a scene about that, about him not understanding that there's serious risk involved in something like this and it can be something as simple as an infection that occurs in a hospital room that could lead to some bad results. I think having gotten through it, gotten to the other end with everybody healthy and happy, maybe that even makes it a little more emotional.