Creative Aging: Finding Penelope

04/25/2011 04:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

"I guess I can say, at 81, I did my stage debut and I have one more thing crossed off my bucket list."

So says Joyce Heinrich, a resident of Luther Manor, a senior living campus in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, during an interview she did on the TV news there recently. Joyce became an actor for the first time as one of the stars of the Penelope Project, a year-long exploration of the myth of Penelope from Homer's Odyssey, created at Luther Manor.

"Why not?" This is the question Anne Basting of the Center on Aging & Community at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee asked. "Why not wrestle with some of the biggest questions humanity has to wrestle with and turn it into art?"

Sounds like she might be talking about a show at New York City's MOMA or a theater production at the Lincoln Center, right? Well, the stage she's talking about is different than that, unique actually. The stage is not even a stage -- well, maybe a stage of life.

Basting, an expert in senior issues but also a writer and associate professor of theater, thought that Penelope's story would resonate with seniors at Luther Manor. The character of Penelope waits years for Odysseus to return home from his voyage, fending off numerous suitors, and then struggles to even recognize him when he finally returns home. Basting thought these seniors would know what it meant to wait -- and that they could identify with issues of fading memories as well.

Joyce and Rusty Tym, another resident at Luther Manor, were curious when a flyer about the project went up in the lobby. Rusty said the flyer simply said, "Who is Penelope?"

"That piqued my interest, so I went to the meeting," Rusty said. There were students from UWM, Anne the writer, and us, a bunch of people who hadn't really acted before."

Rusty, a former radio announcer at WPMJ Milwaukee, was certainly not shy however. He did one stint in the theater decades ago as Horace in Hello Dolly and really enjoyed it.

"I was consumed by my career then, though," he says. "I just had no time. Now, I have time."
Joyce and Rusty read for Basting, who had them pair off to improve the roles of the Queen and King in the adaptation of the Odyssey story. The play, called Finding Penelope, tells the parallel stories of Odysseus searching for his bride and the child of a resident of Luther Manor who has also been away for a long period of time while the resident searches for her.

"The two of us, we just took off," says Joyce of their pairing in the roles. "Anne asked if we'd like to be in it and the rest, well, it's history, right? I never acted before, but I thought, 'I think I can do this.'"

Basting brought in a professional theater company from Portland, OR -- Sojourn. They have taken the play on the road so that the message can reach others.

"This is something that people will look at and it'll change the way they think, or it should anyway," said Rusty. "I learned about the people I live with here, the people in assisted living, folks in the residence. We all look at each other differently now. I want to continue this here, to create an ongoing theater group. It was the last thing I expected when I moved in here a couple years ago, was to become an actor, to be involved in a play. Now I'm hooked."

The experience reawakened the creative writer in Joyce. She had not done any writing in years, but Penelope inspired her to write a fable about the experience. It ends with the line: "If you open your hearts and open your minds, if you but listen and love, there is no limit to how high you can fly."

And she thinks it was pretty cool to be on TV about it, too.

"It makes me feel as if the story has garnered publicity for Luther Manor and what can happen when you're 81 years old," she said. "We should not be afraid to learn something new."

Check out the TV news piece on Finding Penelope.