Friday, April 30, 1999

Musical is a wrenching tale of a full life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The wedding ring he wears on stage is no prop. Matt Bennett remains deeply in love with his wife, Dorrie Joiner.

        “I am acutely aware of that ring all the while I am on stage,” Matt told me Thursday morning as he looked down at a band of gold on the third finger of his left hand.

        Sadly, Matt can love only the memory of his wife.

        Dorrie died in January, ending a 28-year battle with diabetes.

        The disease ruined her heart, robbed her of two kidneys and blinded her night vision. But, Matt told me, the diabetes could not claim her deep, inner strength. Or keep her from inspiring others.

        Earlier this week, I watched Matt gently touch his wedding ring as he performed on stage at the Playhouse in the Park's Shelterhouse. He was working with his partner, Sean McCourt, in their two-man musical, Ten Years Apart. The play ends its world-premiere run Sunday with a 7 p.m. show benefiting Dorrie's favorite charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.

        Some musicals offer nothing more than an excuse to come in out of the rain. But this play put a hand on my heart.

        Ten Years Apart is about two guitar-playing brothers separated by 10 years in age, struggling with their careers and their lives.

        While reading the show's playbill, I noticed this message in big, bold letters under the list of songs: “Ten Years Apart ... for Dorrie Joiner, 1959-1999.” Six pages later, Matt Bennett's biographical notes mentioned Dorrie's passing and their little boy, Jansen.

        After the lights went down and the show went on, Matt and Sean sang about losing a parent.

        The play got to me. Tears. Hard swallows. Long thoughts. It got to me because I came to this play with some ready-made connections. I'm an older brother by 10 years to my sister. The play opens with the death of the brothers' father. I saw the play on my late father's birthday. He would have been 79.

        I wanted to know how Matt manages to get through a performance without breaking down. So I arranged to meet him a couple of days later, early in the morning, up at the Playhouse.

        “I think about Dorrie,” he told me. Tears welled in his eyes. “She was very, very ill for a long time. But no one knew. Not that she tried to hide it. She was just so strong.”

        Dorrie had a kidney transplant in 1990. Six weeks later, she was starring in an off-Broadway play and life seemed right.

        She lived eight years with the transplant. But it was not easy. She kept going into insulin shock. Her kidneys failed. She suffered two heart attacks. But she never gave up.

        On the day she died, Dorrie drove to her daily dialysis treatment. “She went in, chatted with the people, smiled, closed her eyes. And died.”

        Dorrie's courageous fight for life gave Matt the strength to carry on, to finish the musical she urged him to write with Sean, to raise Jansen.

        Still, there are moments when he wonders if he can continue. Doubts creep in during Ten Years Apart as he sings the lines, “When was the last (time) we went waltzing? I'm empty. I need you to love me.”

        No matter if Matt is looking at the faces in the audience or thinking that the show is going well, “those words bring me right back to Dorrie.”

        He recalls the times he and his wife went dancing. And he remembers the times they would waltz around the kitchen.

        “I think how much I miss her,” he said. But he keeps going “because I was so lucky to be with her.”

        Matt tries to share this lesson with his 4-year-old son. But he thinks Jansen is too young to understand. So the father wrote his son a letter to read when he's older.

        “I warned him that throughout life someone is going to be asking: "Do you see the glass of water as half-full or half-empty?'”

        Before he answered the question in the letter, Matt included several pages about Dorrie, explaining how she lived a life that was short but full.

        “Then I answered the question: It's ridiculous to think the glass is half empty or half full. It's full — of water and air. As with remembering what we had and loving what we have, we need both to live.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.