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Exploring the outer edges of human compassion

One day about 15 years ago, Kathy Levin Shapiro found herself sitting at the bedside of a comatose friend. He was a cerebral palsy patient named Eugene whom she'd met through her work as founder of the charitable organization Magic Me.

"It was in that room that I began to ask the questions that I didn't even think of asking while he was sentient," she says. "One of the questions was, 'What was he thinking about our friendship?' And as soon as I asked that, I knew I had to look at this. Because I had no idea. I just assumed that the kindness I was sharing was a good thing. And it unraveled a whole bunch of ideas about the assumptions we make in charity."

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Shapiro decided to examine those assumptions in a play. Titled Eugene's Home, it will make its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., on Aug. 5. Rehearsals begin there tomorrow.

Choosing a play as the forum in which to explore her ideas came naturally to this 47-year-old Baltimore native. Indeed, Eugene's Home can be seen as the ideal synthesis of the two major threads in her life -- Magic Me and theater.

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She attempted this synthesis once before; in the late 1980s, she created the libretto for a musical about Magic Me, for which she persuaded an A-list of Broadway composers to contribute songs. Her theatrical credits also include co-producing a number of Broadway shows, including the 1990 Tony Award-winning revival of Gypsy, and co-writing a play, Hopping to Byzantium, with Brian Clark, best known for Whose Life Is It Anyway?

Eugene's Home, however, is the first time Shapiro has attempted to write for the theater on her own. Perhaps not surprisingly, in at least one respect, it is reminiscent of her two collaborative efforts. Like Hopping to Byzantium (which was produced in Germany and Australia) and Magic Me, The Musical (which never made it past an initial workshop), Eugene's Home takes place in a nursing home.

The action focuses on a young woman named Talie, who runs Magic Me, a program that brings children to visit nursing homes, and Eugene, a CPA with a near-genius IQ and a souped-up wheelchair whose bells and whistles he designed and installed himself. In the play, the relationship between Talie and Eugene begins tentatively, then blossoms into friendship and more.

Play, life are different

Seated in the sun-drenched living room of the spacious Pikesville home she shares with her husband and two young sons, Shapiro acknowledges certain similarities between fact and fiction, particularly between herself and the character of Talie: "I wanted to write the play to explore something for myself, so I made her pretty close, but I changed a bunch of events and factual details in it for the purpose of the play."

At the same time, she says, "It's not a play about me and this person, Eugene. It was catalyzed by that. There's a real difference for me."

For one thing, this intense woman -- whose serious demeanor occasionally gives way to equally intense laughter -- points out that her relationship with Eugene did not include the level of intimacy that is portrayed on stage. For another, she deliberately made Eugene's character more manipulative. Talie gives him a computer, for instance, then finds out he's sold it behind her back. Scenes like this gave her a chance to write about what she calls "the underside of charity."

This darker theme is among the play's most distinctive characteristics, according to dramaturg and playwright James Magruder, who has been working with Shapiro on Eugene's Home for two and a half years. "The theme is very powerful. The limits of compassion is one that people don't write about," says Magruder, who is associate dramaturg at Center Stage and is serving as dramaturg on the Berkshire production.

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"Kathy's take on this as Talie and Eugene go through their journey is a much more truthful examination of what we can do for others who are in terrible situations, and sometimes we can use people to fulfill needs we didn't know we had -- to the good and to the bad."

Much of the work that Magruder and Shapiro have done has involved homing in on the relationship between the main characters. That relationship was what first attracted director Scott Schwartz, to whom Shapiro sent the script more than four years ago.

Describing the play as "an incredibly original love story," Schwartz, who is directing the production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, explains, "The play is about two people who are trapped by their own disabilities, and through this relationship they are forced to confront that.

"Obviously, Eugene, who has cerebral palsy, has a physical disability, but that has also impacted very deeply his emotional life and his ability to honestly relate to other people. But Talie is also disabled in a more metaphorical sense because she is unable to truly express and understand her own emotions."

In another example of the way Eugene's Home has interwoven the threads in her life, Schwartz is the son of composer Stephen Schwartz (Pippin, Godspell, Wicked), whom Shapiro met when she was enlisting songwriters for her fledgling Magic Me musical. A director whose credits include the current Broadway production of Golda's Balcony, Scott Schwartz admits that initially he was concerned that Shapiro's closeness to the subject of Eugene's Home might make it difficult for her to make changes in the script.

However, he says, Shapiro has not only proved to be "collaborative and very open," but he's found it "extremely useful that she's so intimately acquainted with the subject matter because she's able to say, 'I don't think that's really how this would have gone down, but what about this?' "

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Transforming moment

It's been more than a decade since Shapiro stepped down from her leadership position with Magic Me, the organization she founded in 1980 (a year after she graduated from Brown University). She made the move in the early 1990s, when Magic Me was at its height, with programs in more than a dozen cities across the United States, as well as in London and Paris.

"I needed to get the distance. Magic Me was 24 / 7 for me. Life was other. It was also important for the organization not to have the founder around," she says.

She realized her departure would carry some risks. One of those risks -- the closing of the Baltimore office -- actually took place soon after she left. The intergenerational charity is still active around the country, however, with major offices in Boston, where it is called Generations Inc., and in London.

And, Shapiro has found the personal life she put on hold during her Magic Me days. Eight years ago, she married Sandy Shapiro, a second cousin who is in the scrap metal business. Three years later, they built a house next to the one where she grew up and where her mother still lives. Her sister's family has a house on the same property.

She also continues to do charitable work, serving as head of a community service program called Gemilut Hasadim (Hebrew for "acts of loving kindness") at her synagogue, Chizuk Amuno.

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Shapiro knows firsthand that charity can transform the benefactor as well as the recipient. It's a discovery she made when she was just starting Magic Me. That's also when she was first struck by the innate theatricality of nursing homes.

"When I was developing Magic Me, the experiences in the nursing home ... had the same sort of magical theatrical quality as being in a proper theater. And one of the impulses I felt early on was the crying need to share it," she says.

Not until now, however, did she believe she'd found the right way to share that theatrical quality with an audience.

Although Eugene's Home examines charity, warts and all, she hopes it will have the same effect on theatergoers that some of her more poignant visits to nursing homes had on her.

Eugene is hardly the only example. Leaning back in her chair, Shapiro summons up the memory of a paralyzed woman she met 25 years ago. One of the woman's hands would respond to humor, opening slightly in a gesture of welcome. "From a stone, she became a person with a gesture of her hand," she recalls.

"You don't have the obvious ways in, and then suddenly there's this contact that opens up the clouds," she says, clapping her hands together loudly for emphasis.

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"That changed me. It really did. It made a huge difference in my life, that moment. If this play were to give someone a moment like that, one moment, that's the impetus for me -- to share that directness with other people."

Kathy Levin Shapiro

Born: March 19, 1957, in Baltimore

Education: Park School, 1975; B.A. in classics from Brown University, 1979

Career: Founded Magic Me, an international, intergenerational charity that brings young people into nursing homes, in 1980; co-founded the Broadway Fund, a mutual fund that invests in Broadway shows, in 1993; theatrical producer of such Broadway shows as Gypsy (1989), A Few Good Men (1989) and Artist Descending a Staircase (1989), and, off-Broadway, The Shawl (1996); co-author, with Brian Clark, of Hopping to Byzantium (1990); author of Eugene's Home (2004)

Family: Husband, Sandy Shapiro; two sons, Jonathan, 5, and L.J., 6


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