(Above: Actors from Prelude to a Kiss at The Very Little Theatre: left to right, Martin Brown, Quinn Alexander Vasbinder, David Smith, Robin Hart, Jonas Israel, Jesselyn Perkins, David Arnold; photo by LifeSlice Photography)

By Randi Bjornstad

There’s as much drama behind the scenes of the Very Little Theatre’s production of Prelude to a Kiss as there is onstage.

And all of the parallels relate to the talent, courage, stamina, perspective, and love-of-life of its real-life director, Darlene Rhoden.

In a way, there’s an important link to the “creation story” of the original play by playwright Craig Lucas, which dates to 1988, and this 2023 production at VLT.

The original plot often was considered an allegory of sorts for the anguish so many couples confronted in that era dominated by the AIDS epidemic.

“Craig Lucas was in the Bay Area at the time, and he wrote the play during the AIDS crisis,” Rhoden said. “He wrote about the idea that you can love somebody, and they can get sick — but that despite everything, love endures.”

Then she adds: “I am kind of in this same situation with my husband.”

That’s because she is in the throes of treatment for metastatic cancer, which originated in the colon but in the years since has spread to her lungs and liver, she said. She currently is on a regimen of chemotherapy sessions every few weeks.

Darlene Rhoden, director of Prelude to a Kiss at The Very Little Theatre, in an undated photo

At the same time, her marriage to Paul Rhoden has continued and deepened, even as it has changed to accommodate this ultimate challenge. Both Rhodens are accomplished thespians and directors, and in order to accomplish this production, Paul Rhoden took the role of assistant director to his wife.

The experience has been both exhilarating and challenging.

“This was a very intense rehearsal process,” Darlene Rhoden said. “I ended up in the hospital at the very beginning, and we only had five-and-a-half weeks set for rehearsals as it was. The surgeons at that point were telling me to prepare for ‘end of life,’ and I said, ‘I can’t — I have a play to direct!’ “

Plot of Prelude to a Kiss

In the original play, Peter, who works at a publishing house, meets Rita, a part-time bartender, at a party, and the two begin to fall in love despite the fact that Rita has an inordinate fear and pessimism about the future.

They eventually marry, but at the reception following the ceremony, an elderly man wanders into the reception and gives the bride a kiss on the cheek. In a supernatural switch, their souls become exchanged, and the young woman who goes home with Peter now is inhabited by the psyche of the elderly man, while the real Rita wanders off in his aged body.

By the end of their honeymoon, Peter soon realizes that the physical Rita is not the same as the mental Rita. At the bar when she works, he suddenly sees the elderly man, begins to talk to him, and realizes that he is the mental and spiritual Rita. They talk about how to make another mental swap, but when Peter returns home, he finds that the physical “Rita” has gone back to her parents’ house. He also learns through the elderly man’s daughter that the old man, Julius, has terminal cancer, with only a year or so to live.

Peter and the spiritual Rita begin to live as a couple again, despite the gender dysphoria between her inward and outward identities. He realizes that he loves “her” regardless of her outward appearance, and she overcomes her original fears through her new perspective on life.

When the two reconnect with the person who is Rita outside and Julius inside, they find that “he” has no more insight into the switch than they have, that he wandered into their wedding accidentally and felt envy at their youth because of his fear of dying. The inner Rita realizes that when the elderly man kissed her, she envied him for having achieved old age despite the dangers she feared in life.

At the moment they realize that they have overcome their original fears, their souls switch back to their real bodies, and they resume the lives they were meant to lead.

Prelude to the play

Darlene Rhoden’s love of theater goes back to childhood.

“I have been in theater since I was a kid,” she said. “I did acting through college, and I directed a lot of children’s theater. When I moved to Eugene, I became a middle-school teacher, and I got involved in theater again.” She directed As You Like It at VLT, another play about the anniversary of Eugene, plus a couple other plays in VLT’s smaller Stage Left theater.

In fact, Rhoden met her husband-to-be, Paul Rhoden, on the Very Little Theatre stage, “about 2009 or so, I think, when VLT did All My Sons,” she said.

Darlene Rhoden’s original intention for this play was a different year and a different play, but life had other things in mind for her.

“This all kind of goes back to 2020,” Rhoden said. “I was getting ready to direct Anne Frank, at VLT, and then the pandemic happened and everything shut down.”

So did a good part of her life.

“In September 2020, I found myself on the operating table with Stage 4 colon cancer,” 58-year-old Rhoden said. “I hadn’t ever had a colonoscopy. I had been taking care of my mother, and she died in September 2020. All during the pandemic, I wasn’t feeling good, and I eventually went to the emergency room, and they said I had a mass on my ovary.”

Surgery quickly followed, revealing the original location of the cancer and its spread. “They took out a lot of stuff and repaired a lot of stuff,” Rhoden said, “and I was cancer-free for a time. But my oncologist said I had to follow with chemotherapy that I wasn’t really cancer-free, that it would appear somewhere else sometime.”

Since then, she has never stopped chemo, Rhoden said, undergoing it regularly every few weeks and incorporating it into her life, which still includes her love of theater.

In 2022, when theatrical activities started to open up again, not everyone in the cast she had chosen for the Anne Frank play was available, “so I submitted the idea of doing Prelude to a Kiss instead, and it was selected as one of the plays for this year,” she said. “It’s often thought of as a romantic comedy, but I find it’s more of a ‘memory play,’ a dark fairy tale with magic and surrealism — and I love all that stuff.”

The memory aspect comes in the form of a narrator, “a lead actor who is onstage the entire time, walking into each scene,” she said. In a way, her husband’s role is the same in real life, being her caregiver at home and taking her place on stage as her assistant director when she’s not well enough to be there.

The world’s still a stage

Despite her illness and dire prognosis — “I’m involved with palliative care at this stage, not cure,” Rhoden said — theater is still a integral part of her life, and Prelude to a Kiss provides an uncanny parallel.

“I live now just to do the things I love,” she said. “I don’t work, my life is this. And Paul (Rhoden) is my caregiver and companion.”

She goes out occasionally to sing karaoke, “and I sing sometimes with a band at Mac’s, that sort of thing. And theater, although I don’t act any more. I want to do the things I want to do — I love directing, and I’m definitely going to see this through. I prepare early so I can go deep.”

She believes her own life and Prelude to a Kiss offer the same message: “Life is so precious. We are not here forever, so take advantage of it. Don’t be afraid, but live your life. Enjoy doing whatever you can.”

Prelude to a Kiss at The Very Little Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. March 16-17, 24-25, 30-31, and April 1; 2 p.m. on March 19 and 26, and April 2

Where: The Very Little Theatre, 2350 Hilyard St., Eugene

Tickets: $24, available online at TheVLT.com

Information: 541-344-7751