Prior to rehearsing for Novenas for a Lost Hospital, cast member Ken Barnett saw his relationship to the titular medical center, St. Vincent’s, as twofold.
For one, he’s lived in the West Village since 2000. “So St. Vincent’s was my local ER,” he said. “I definitely had the old-school experience of getting there and waiting for hours in the middle of the night with every character you could imagine in New York City, all sharing a room together. It was what I knew of an emergency room in New York; I had my eye sewn up there.”
But after further considering St. Vincent’s—Manhattan’s monolithic downtown hospital that was founded in 1849, shuttered in 2010, and is now the subject of the moving, elegiac Novenas by Cusi Cram at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater—Barnett describes his connection to the institution as much more profound.
“I came of age when the AIDS crisis was in full bloom,” he shared. “A lot of what I knew about being a gay man in the world, at that moment, was that you will get that illness and die at St. Vincent’s.”
Such was the fate for thousands of queer people in the 1980s and 90s, whose final trips to “St. Vinny’s,” as locals called it, became a grim normalcy. Still, the hospital—an epicenter of AIDS research and treatment—would take them in, an act that others would not entertain and one that was often criticized, it being a Catholic hospital.
Nonetheless, it was St. Vincent’s Hospital’s core value of respect—“the basic dignity of the human person is the guiding principle in all our interactions, policies, and procedures,” its mission read—that was a virtuous and radical north star for its 161 years. Now, Cram’s play asks its intimate audience of 60 the same question the hospital asked of its unflappable staff: “Who in this bustling city, in this fractured country, in our shared world is not our neighbor and deserving of care—and how can theater provide a similar space of community and support?”
It is rich terrain for questions, ignited by the fact that the Village has now been hospital-less for nearly a decade following St. Vincent’s bankruptcy. “The closing felt very ominous to me, like a final seismic shift in the neighborhood,” said Cram, who lived on 11th Street for 25 years.
“The hospital was started by four nuns in 1849 in a building on East 13th with no running water in the middle of a cholera epidemic, which largely affected poor, Irish immigrants,” Cram said. “The nuns were a revelation. As were the parallels between the cholera and AIDS epidemics. Who treats the people no one wants to? For much of New York’s history, it has been Catholic hospitals run by nuns. And now there are no more Catholic hospitals left in the city. Those facts shaped the play. I didn't know that nuns essentially created social welfare in New York.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton founded the Sisters of Charity who then started St. Vincent’s. In Novenas, Tony Award nominee Kathleen Chalfant portrays Seton who is the play’s anchor, guiding audiences through the movements and decades that defined St. Vincent’s.
“People often think of the AIDS crisis [in regards to St. Vincent’s], but a lot of people also think of September 11,” Barnett said. “It being a downtown hospital on the West Side, they were prepared to see a lot of patients. The nurses who were called to work then, they called in those who worked in Spellman 7 [the AIDS ward] because they had ‘wartime experience,’ which I found fascinating.”
The hospital treated victims of cholera, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the Titanic and more. During a section of the play depicting the height of the AIDS crisis, Barnett portrays a fictional composite character named Lazarus.
“The character is one of the first to receive the protease inhibitors that enabled people to live when previously they just died. It’s a unique story to tell,” Barnett said. “I happened to meet a man in a bar a few months ago. I mentioned what I was working on and he said, ‘Oh my God, I’m Lazarus—that's my story.’ So he and I have become friends, and he has so generously shared his experience with me, which is so much more impactful that any book I can read.”
“At that time,” he continued, “your health was measured by the number of T cells you had to indicate how effectively you could fight off these opportunistic infections; his regenerated miraculously. All of the sudden he was restoring to health, he was resurrecting, thus the comparison to Lazarus.”
Director Daniella Topol’s production uniquely travels not just through time, but also space. “I have long been obsessed with how we can make what happens in a theater as dramatic and unexpected as what happens on the street in New York,” Cram said. “I love the uncertainty and surprise of bringing theater to the street.” As such, Novenas begins in a West Village garden, then takes its audiences into Rattlestick’s theater, and finally transports them to AIDS Memorial Park. “Put on your sneakers (or most comfortable pair of shoes) and leave your heavy bags at home,” the website informs audiences.
To further individualize this theatrical experience—and to highlight the ways in which St. Vincent’s has been a staple for so many queer and downtown communities—Novenas is presented in partnership with multiple organizations, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center; NYC AIDS Memorial Board; NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing; St. John's in the Village; Village Preservation; and Visual AIDS. “It has been amazing to learn more deeply about what all these organizations and institutions do and to begin to have my own relationship with them,” Cram noted.
Inherently communal, theater—and, specifically, Novenas—offers audiences a chance to come together and reflect. “It’s a luxury to be able to stand back and ponder,” Barnett said, adding a detail about the man he befriended who was one of the too-few Lazaruses. “He was crushed when his fortune turned around and others’ didn’t. He still carries around with him a list of names of those he knew and loved and lost.”
Cram’s play ends, poignantly and transcendently, at AIDS Memorial Park. Less a gesture of finality and more an opportunity for reverence, audiences gather one last time at the memorial, blending in with passersby that surround them even as their stillness contrasts the pulse of the city—a pulse that seems to echo the lost souls, like those of the characters in the play, who are given the ephemeral chance to be witnessed, and depart, and now return.