Facing up to death is a good thing, or so say the wise. We are far less likely to waste time if we remain mindful of time’s finitude. Moreover, mindfulness of death leads to forgiveness; Buddha taught that those who reflect on the fact of death resolve their quarrels quickly. In other words, they don’t leave a lot of unfinished business to burden the lives of those left behind, nor — according to some metaphysical views — to gum up their own transition into the next realm.
Playwright and Santa Barbara theater maven Rod Lathim has been evolving Unfinished Business for several years now. First staged at Center Stage Theater in 2012, the play focuses on the bedside drama of a dying comatose mother (Laura Mancuso) and her two adult offspring, Sis (Jenna Scanlon) and David (Brian Harwell), who are conflicted about her passing. But the real thrust of the story is David’s psychic sensitivity and his witness of and interaction with spirits who gather to assist his mother’s transition. Lathim claims the story is loosely based on what he saw and felt at the bedside of his dying mother.
When Lathim first staged Unfinished Business, the response was generally good, but there was also some confusion owing to the difficulty of theatrically representing seen and unseen planes of reality all at once. This substantially rewritten version tackles that difficulty structurally with the device of iteration: The essential drama is first played to ordinary senses; it is then repeated with the added layer of spiritual characters — deceased family members and friends who dwell behind the screen of the senses. Only after peeling away the layers do we come to understand why the spirit of Mom (Ann Dusenberry) continues to hold on, burdened by lingering incompletion.
A piece like this inevitably leans into New Age sentimentality. What is notable about Unfinished Business, however, is the solid baseline drama of the primary family relationships around the bedside and the reality and respect shown toward home hospice care. However entertaining the supernatural elements are, the heart of this play is a human issue: a final good-bye that is either a liberating release, a binding residue, or — in all likelihood — some sticky mixture of both.