Playwright Michael Hollinger’s “Under the Skin,” fresh from its debut in Philadelphia, opened Jan. 29 at Everyman Theatre to critical acclaim. The show, about a father who attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter for a timely and desperately needed organ donation, is a comedy whose fictional story is something of a reality for Everyman’s lighting designer, Jay Herzog. Last year, when the company’s artistic director, Vincent Lancisi, first saw “Under the Skin,” Herzog was recovering from liver transplant surgery. Herzog discovered he needed a transplant in 2014 after experiencing liver failure brought on by genetics: Both of his parents are carriers for a liver disease known as Alpha-1.
In conjunction with the production, Everyman is hosting an after-show event on National Donor Day, Sunday, Feb. 14. After that day’s 2 p.m. matinee, donors, recipients, caregivers and anyone interested are invited to come and engage in a panel conversation about the transplant community.
We got a chance to talk with Herzog, now celebrating 20 years with Everyman (“Under the Skin” marks his 50th production), about the show, how he approached its lighting design and more.
What was your transplant journey like?
It was very emotional. I thought, at first, that my liver would get better, but you really shouldn’t think that way. Your MELD score has to be 15 in order to get on the transplant list, and when I first went to Johns Hopkins, it was at 16. Hopkins wanted me to wait until I got a little worse, but I heard the worse you are going into the surgery, the worse you are coming out. So I went to the University of Maryland Medical Center. I had been [posting about my liver failure] on Facebook–I’ve never hidden any part of this. As I was writing about it, about a dozen people reached out to me to donate. It was so moving, I mean someone that I was just an acquaintance with in high school put their name on my list to help.
How did your experience influence your approach to the play?
Well, you know, being in a hospital room is the absolute worst thing, and in “Under the Skin” we never leave the hospital room. That hospital bed stays on stage the whole time. The fluorescent lighting in hospitals is just awful, so I captured that feeling of being under these bright lights.
And there was this time during my recovery when my youngest son came to visit, and the sun was just starting to set. This very Edward Hopper-like light was shining in through the window, and my wife snapped the greatest photo of him with that light. I just love that picture. So during one of the scenes, there’s this subtle orange glow — it won’t be a big moment for the audience — but it makes me happy every time I see it.
How well does “Under the Skin” tell the transplant narrative?
Medical research [for a production] is so easy to do. But the emotional side of things, Michael [Hollinger] really gets it right. The language he uses just amazes me. The cast is just great. Each of them has really done their research. We had doctors from the University of Maryland come in and talk with the cast. A married couple, where the husband is the recipient and the wife a donor, came and talked with them. We were lucky to work with the playwright, since this is only the play’s second time being staged. It’s gone through several rewrites since Philly. At times he would ask me, “Is this insulting?,” because it’s a very funny comedy. He didn’t want it to be offensive.
What do you think of the play currently?
I’ve worked on 400-plus shows, and this is the most special that I’ve been a part of. “Under the Skin” gives [donors and recipients] — and I’ve talked with my transplant friends who also agree — a place to go. It gives us a platform to talk about this. The ending may seem absurd, but it’s happened before. It’s been seen. I cry during each show, and I laugh during each show..
What’s the reception been like?
People love it. My doctor came up to me and said, “You really capture what that hospital room is like.”
At the end of the day, how does this all make you feel?
I have my 15 minutes of fame, and I’m going to use it. I enjoy being able to talk about this. I’ve gotten to do radio interviews, newspaper articles and magazine stories. I’ve encouraged everyone in my family to get tested for Alpha-1. This community — the transplant community — is a very grateful and thankful community. I feel extremely gifted right now.
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