Heartwood

Until last week, I knew little about redwoods or ‘heartwood.” Then I went to see the world premiere of the play Redwood, starring the indomitable Idina Menzel, who co-created with director-playwright and co-lyricist Tina Landau, with music and lyrics by Kate Diaz. This transformative piece is full of love, loss, grief, and ultimately redemption, and  is set in the majestic Redwood forest 

Idina plays Jesse, a successful businesswoman, mother, and wife. She seems to have it all together, and yet her heart is broken like so many moms whose sons have accidentally overdosed and died. Not being able to bear the brunt of her grief-stricken tragedy (a phone call in the middle of the night she manages to shuttle back and forth for two years, not being able to look at pictures, not able to process her grief her guilt, not being able to move on she suddenly packs bags gets into her car and travels thousands of miles away till she ends up in the Redwood forest. Here is a chance meeting and a leap of faith in the presence of towering redwoods; Jesse finds strange and powerful connections, an unexpected sense of community with two unlikely people, and a chance at healing 

Two things stood out as significant to me in this play. First is the power of human connection as a key to loving, living, and thriving. Second, the power of nature as something greater than ourselves that can lend a hand to healing, and there’s something magical about redwoods. You feel as if these enormous goddesses surround you. They humble and inspire you, and you feel at peace when you are there. There’s a beautiful silence when you’re there…redwoods have survived for thousands of years through fire and from men trying to tear them down. Redwoods are a metaphor for all of us in how we can be resilient and survive in the face of adversity.

For Jesse, it was her sweet, beautiful USC boy who did not know what he wanted to do or where to go. Sure, he smoked weed and tried a few other drugs. Yet when he came home from school, he did not know what to do with his life. Laying on the couch, not getting a job, and going out every night seemed counterproductive. Then, he had an idea and asked his mom to send him back to California. As most 23-year-olds do, he promised, “I will text you every day, I will call you every day, and I will find a job.” Like most moms, Jesse pondered, “Should I or shouldn’t I give him some money? What should I do?” 

Then, armed with hope and $2000, her son left for California, and for a while, the world was safe, and the calls and texts to Jesse were regular. There was hope that his life was back on track, but then in an instant, that hope dissipated, and what was left was a fire that burned in her heart. All it took was one phone call, a call from the LAPD, who had checked his room and discovered her son’s lifeless body. An accidental overdose of fentanyl took her son, and then the music was gone, hope was gone, and guilt permeated every pore in Jesse’s body.

It was in the redwoods that Jesse was able to come to grips with her son’s death. Here, she discovered the resiliency of “heartwood,” the gift of compassion and forgiveness. Heartwood lies in the core of these magnificent trees. Its cells contain tannins and other substances that color it dark in color and make it slightly aromatic. Heartwood is mechanically strong, resistant to decay, and less easily penetrated by wood-preservative chemicals than other types of wood.  Heartwood is solid and stable. It is generally dry wood and provides structure and strength to a tree. It survives the wind and the fires and acts as a drain, giving life and resiliency. As a metaphor, Jesse discovers that inside of her is heartwood, which aids in her healing, and that being in connection with the redwood roots gives her the redemptive strength to navigate the world.