It was a moment of serendipity perhaps specific to the performing arts. By chance, a Chicago actor heard a woman’s voice, in passing, on the radio–an interview with a public school teacher she was about to portray on stage. But the moment changed Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s understanding of her character, Helen Sclair, and her insight into a show and its subject matter: death.

“There’s something about scripts and the printed word,” Bruce says, “where thoughts on paper seem to amass a kind of gravitas or awareness that may not have been originally present.”

“But when [Sclair] was speaking, it was clear she didn’t expect her words to be set in stone. She was talking and explaining her personal association with death, and it was very matter of fact; conversational.

“It made me mindful of how ‘theatrical’ I did not want to make the work,” Bruce says.

It’s a point of view Derek Goldman echoes when he talks about that same play, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith­, which he adapted from the 2001 book of the same title by Studs Terkel.

By regional standards, the concert reading of the work at UNC’s Memorial Hall this week is a momentous undertaking. Its cast includes David Straithairn (who played Edward R. Murrow in last year’s film Good Night, and Good Luck), Keith Randolph Smith (from television’s Law and Order) and Frederick Neumann, a member of the Mabou Mines theater company in New York. Bruce is the show’s strongest connecting thread: She’s performed in both of the previous concert readings of Circle.

The production marks a major–and fitting–upgrade in production values for Streetsigns Center for Literature and Performance, the scrappy but innovative company Goldman brought to Chapel Hill in 2000. It also marks the latest chapter in the unfolding story of increasing collaboration between Playmakers Repertory Company and UNC’s department of dramatic art with other university programs and companies in the region. UNC’s departments of music and communication studies and the Carolina Performing Arts Series are also collaborating in the production.

But such benchmarks threaten to obscure the central point Goldman finds in the work. “At heart, it’s a very simple project. These are simple stories told by people, tapping into a range of experiences about death–and therefore even more about life.”

By now, Terkel is known to millions as a journalist, historian, raconteur and radio personality. Likely his best-known work to date, the 1970 best-seller Working was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1978. Both books contain his literary signature: dozens of probing interviews with people from all levels of society on a topic that affects them all.

“When I first encountered this text, I was so struck by these different voices,” Goldman says of Circle. “There was such a spectrum: a cop, a fireman, a paramedic; historic figures like a Hiroshima survivor; people like Kurt Vonnegut. They’re celebrities, non-celebrities, artists, workers and everyday citizens.

“You’d be very hard pressed to find a play whose dramatic construction would include Uta Hagen [a legendary actor] and Delbert Lee Tibbs [an exonerated death row inmate] in the same world. But here they answer one another; their stories do really connect together,” Goldman says.

To a large degree, Terkel’s gift is one of indirection: After the briefest of introductions, he gives his subjects center stage. It’s easy not to notice that Terkel is brilliantly editing and condensing each interview to get at the crux of the issue. Such traits make him “the ultimate listener,” in Goldman’s words. “He reflects back to people who don’t realize it that they have such an extraordinary story to tell.”

A paramedic describes the quiet, gentle privilege of finding an elderly person who had died at home, surrounded by the context of a full life. Musician Doc Watson talks about his experiences after the death of his son, Merle, before reflecting on the song which gives the work its title. Meanwhile, a teacher senses that death has become “the new pornography” and devotes herself to be an advocate for the dead.

Any one of these accounts would be arresting in itself. Taken together, we realize that Terkel has used them as individual tiles in a larger mosaic; a picture of the human community, affirming the meanings of life in the face of that which challenges all meaning.

Goldman has seen the work performed twice by now–on a stage at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, and before an audience of 9,000 people at an outdoor production featuring Garrison Keillor at Chicago’s Millennium Park.

What kept those productions from being what former Playmakers Rep general manager Donna Heins calls “a can’t-sell-it, woe-is-me, make-em-cry, send-em-home-depressed” evening of theater? Arguably, the way Terkel uses his witnesses to connect the threads of life.

“Though we think we know the issues and topics of life, we kind of experience them as they come across our TV screens and newspapers in columns, boxes; separated,” Goldman notes. “In the circle of this project, they come together. Through the larger topic, they animate each other, and us.”

Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith
Streetsigns Center for Literature and Performance
Memorial Hall, UNC
Sept. 7-8