A few years before the latest disturbing statistics were released from the Centers for Disease Control, indicating a spike in suicide rates by more than 30 percent in half the country from 1999 to 2016 – and before the latest high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and chef-author-travel guide Anthony Bourdain stunned the world – Stan Zimmerman experienced suicide up close and personal.
A good friend took his own life in May 2012.
Zimmerman, who had been primarily a comedy writer and infused even his serious plays with humor, decided to write a play with little lightness.
“I was looking to process my own grief through the play,” said Zimmerman, who called his work “Right Before I Go.”
Monday night saw a one-night-only performance at The Ratner Museum in Bethesda to benefit two prominent suicide-awareness and prevention nonprofits: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) and JED Foundation (JEDFoundation.org).
“Right Before I Go” made its world premiere in 2015, as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, where it received rave reviews. In 2017, the play had its East Coast debut at New York City’s Town Hall.
Since then it has been traveling around the country, with the playwright particularly interested in bringing the play to small venues.
It was more than a play about the tragedy of suicide, which, he emphasized, affects not only “famous people” and those diagnosed with mental illness, but war veterans, members of the LGBT community, and victims of bullying. Just about everyone.
Only about one-third of those who take their own lives leave suicide notes, but Zimmerman found the source for his play in those notes he was able to collect.
A few were written by famous people – such as the writer Virginia Woolf, actor George Sanders, and rock star Kurt Cobain – but most were not.
The audience was overall young, and in good spirits – until the program began with some statistics: More than 2000 families a year in the United States lose a young person to suicide or a drug overdose. More than 800,000 people worldwide commit suicide every year.
Marti Ratner, a member of the family that founded the museum, stated that “Everybody has a story – or been touched by suicide.”
In similar fashion to “The Vagina Monologues” and “Love Letters,” actors – in this case, nine – sit on stools but rise and come forward to read the notes, in the writers’ own words.
“We want to raise awareness,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not just about tragedy; it’s also about hope.”
The play also includes the words of individuals who attempted suicide and survived.
Although the notes rarely give the reason for the writers’ actions – often they express love for those left behind, and the notes capture only one moment in time. Some themes are unendurable melancholy; childhood rape; facing jail time; crippling self-doubt; and the wounds of war. Some said they didn’t want to die; only to be free of pain.
Walking toward the New York performance, Zimmerman recalled his younger self, when, at 18 or 19, he dreamt of “great actors” doing one of his plays.
That has materialized, but not in the way he would have liked.
Despite that, he said, after seeing “Right Before I Go,” audiences usually “don’t want to leave the theater. They want to keep speaking to me, and continued talking on the street. People wrote to me who read about the play online.”
A talk followed the performance, during which one of the actors recalled a good friend who had committed suicide. The friend’s mother and grandmother were in the audience.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. If you, or someone you love is in crisis, call 1-800-273-8255.
The play has its own website: www.rightbeforeigo.com.