T. Jefferson Carey, American Hero

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How many people do you know who are pure souls? Who somehow manage to live and create in a way that transcends our shabby normal? Who exhibit bravery and grace when faced with illnesses? And who never, ever give up?

Jeff Carey lived a beautiful life. That kind of life, in the face of challenges no one wants to face. 

I just found out that he died, at 56, from ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease. It’s not how any of us would choose to go. It’s one of those ailments that turns you into a parody of yourself, like strokes. You lose control of your muscles, your face, your language and your body. It’s a disease that seems particularly cruel to inflict on an actor, artist, and playwright, like the irony of Baudelaire being struck silent.

Jeff grew up in east Denver, went to Manual High School and then to major in theatre at New York University. A few years later, he studied playwriting at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He studied with David Mamet, and, back in NYC, was part of a writing group that included Aaron Sorkin.

I didn’t know any of that when I met him. His sister, Ann Carey Sabbah, who loved him and held him in awe, suggested that he’d be a good person to hire for our creative team. I thought so, too. He came in with a portfolio of drawings that managed to be macabre and charming at the same time. He offered a few short scripts, all brilliant and original, and he’d been designed Hallowe’en horror houses, so he seemed like a good candidate for coming up with original ideas. Then the market crashed, and we lost the budget for his position (and for mine a few months later.)

(Which, by the way, is why you should always work for yourself. At least your errors are your own).

We looped around and caught up with each other a few years later, spending several afternoons over at St. Mark’s Café. Those conversations felt autumnal in many ways. Jeff was working the grounds crew at City Park, but he didn’t complain at all about it. He even enjoyed the work. In the meantime, he had a lot of projects percolating. He was writing and drawing every day.

Jeff had a beautiful voice, and his conversation had the rare quality of always being felt, of being called up from the depths. He had a virtuosic command of language, of the shifts and turns of a good chat, moving from funny to profound in a few beats. We talked about Dali, Hemingway, Welles, kid’s cartoons, and the theater in all its aspects. You felt his immediate and overwhelming kindness, always.

What he was too modest to talk about were the productions of his plays in places like Chicago and New York. I had no idea of the scope and range of his work as playwright, ranging as it did over children’s theatre, drama, and comedy — sometimes blending all three. 

Instead, he had the rare grace to chat about topics that interested us both. 

Then, he was between things. He’d find a home with the Creede Repertory Theatre, a fine ensemble in southern Colorado. He played roles, staged his plays and found a base.

He also went through some hard times. But Jeff met every bit of adversity with invention. With the power of his own imagination. 

In a group home with a bunch of people stricken with depression? Write a play and stage it with them. Make it so good that even a legendary theater director like Powell sees it and is blown away.

Got a big ol’ cancerous tumor on one of your precious kidneys? 

Re-imagine it as the woman of your dreams and write another play about it: I, Kidney.

Life in the arts is hard. In the theatre, it seems especially precarious. Jeff took it all in stride, kept working and stayed cheerful.

His sister, quoted by John Moore,  said it very well:

“My brother is a brilliant flame of pure creative energy, dimmed only intermittently by his courageous struggles,” said Sabbah. “The gifts he gave us are boundless and the world was ever so much more interesting through his eyes. As another friend put it, he was the type of person who leaves beauty in his wake.”

I miss him. And this world has been robbed of one more light.

 

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