Building for the Present

By Tom Woodley


A man in a coma in the intensive care unit of a hospital is visited by different people in his life.  As his visitors speak to him -- not knowing whether he can hear -- it is clear that he has repeatedly rejected God in his life.


 Richard Johnson (40-something driven businessman, currently in a coma) - non-speaking, he may be represented by props.
 Trevor (A partner of Richard’s from the office)
 Elaine (Richard’s wife)
 Angela (Richard’s teenage daughter, about 18-years-old)


(Scene: A room in hospital intensive care unit. If using props, the head of the bed should be near to the audience, and the foot of the bed away from the audience.  There should be a pillow at the head of the bed  A wig could be placed on the pillow to look  like the top of someone’s head.)

[Trevor pokes his head into the room, and looks around slowly, tentatively.  He walks fully into the room, looking at the figure in the bed with concern.]

Trevor:  Richard…  [slowly] Wow…  Richard…  My God.  [anguished]  How could this have happened?

[Pauses for a few moments, bites lip, clearly distraught …]

[Slowly, somewhat choked up.]  The doctors say that even though you’re in a coma, you may be able to understand some of what’s being said… or some of what’s going on around you…  Maybe the best thing to do is to just talk to you like normal…  you know, like as if we were just shooting the bull at work.

[Pauses -- feels unnatural talking to someone who can’t respond.  Looks around, pulls up a chair and sits down close to the bed.]

The guys at work really wanted to make it down here with me today.  I barely slipped out myself…  We’re all killing ourselves to close the Steinberg account.  We’ve got a final contract review tomorrow before the signing by the Steinberg lawyers.  …You know how picky they are with their paperwork.  [pauses pensively]  Y’know, you deserve to be there – you’re the one who got our foot in the door with Steinberg…

[Rambles on a bit, somewhat absent-mindedly.  Looks away from Richard]

Y’know, that’s part of what really stinks with this job – you get jerked around so much by the [mockingly] client, that you can’t even slip out and visit a friend in the hospital.

[Stops, snorts, shakes his head, looks back at Richard]

That’s part of what drove you, huh?  I remember what you used to say…  “Nobody’s going to tell Richard Johnson what to do!  Not the Board of Directors, not the shareholders, not God himself!  We’ll take our own decisions!”  Well Richard Johnson [Raising voice, with conviction], let me tell you…  You have a lot to be proud of: [Gesturing with hands]  48-years-old, your own company, your own boss, 26 employees, your own empire…

[Trails off, looks around, embarrassed.  Shakes his head.]

Y’know, I really wish you could talk to me…  I mean, as you’re one of the founders of the company and all, I felt I needed your advice on some things…  [Pauses]  Well…  maybe I’ll just speak my mind anyway…

[Begins again, as if telling a story]

…You know, I took over the paperwork on some of the holdings on the West side last month… Y’know, the ones that were hit really hard by the strikes last year.  Well… [half-heartedly…]  There are a lot of closures that are coming up in the next few months, and unless we allow them to refinance, we’re going to be pushing a lot of people out on the street.


I know what the company policy is, but I just can’t help remembering some of the things my mother used to teach me…  about watching out for folks that’ve had some tough breaks.  Like… “Do unto others, as you would have them…” [trailing off…]  Y’know.  Like, don’t be too tough…  moral stuff…

[Pauses, shrugs shoulders…]

Maybe you wouldn’t agree.  I remember what you said when that priest tried to intervene on behalf of that widow in Hudson…  [As if acting…]  “How can the Bible provide guidance today?  Do you expect me to run my business by something that was written 2000 years ago?  Wasn’t it written for people eating manna in the desert?  Isn’t it about the ten commandments – y’know… ‘Don’t covet your neighbor’s livestock or cattle.’ ”

[Pauses reflectively…]

Maybe you were right.  It’s hard to trust feelings.  Someone will always have an excuse why they need special treatment.  Sometimes you’ve just got to put your head down and play it by the book.  [Embarassed by what he’s said…]  I mean… [waves hands]  …the book, the book…  by the legal rules.  Y’know, make the tough calls – do what you gotta do, even if you’re not totally comfortable!

It's ironic that you wind up here just days before we close with Steinberg.  God, I bet you wish you could be there.  I mean, this will be three times as big as anything we’ve signed yet.  All the running around that we’ve had to do,.. all those months…  I always love it when we meet to sign with the lawyers at the very end.  You forget about all the hours at the office, and you realize that it all paid off in the end.

[Trevor's cell phone rings, stand up, pulls phone out…]

Hello?  Yeah John!  What?  You gotta be kidding!  [Turns his back to the audience, but continues talking.]

[At this point, Trevor will work through the following paragraph until Elaine comes on scene.]

I can’t believe it.  I told them a million times that they had to have the deal closed by the 17th.  We can’t cover for them anymore.  What else did they tell you?..  Yeah…  Yeah…  You don’t have to accept any of this…  No…  Look, you tell them to get back on the phone, or get on a plane, and finish this thing up for once and for all…  No…  Are you serious?  I can’t believe this…  Do you have their number in New York?  Okay, here it is: 202-546-7851.  Yeah…  Ask for Jim Lieberman; tell him that Trevor backs you up 100 percent…

[When Elaine comes on scene, Trevor doesn’t stop talking, but makes some hand motions like he’s embarrassed and heads off stage.  Continues talking until off stage.]

[When Elaine comes in, she makes brief eye contact with Trevor, but then makes straight for the bed and Richard.  She has an intense look.  A bit tired and fragile.  She sits in the chair beside the bed, and slips her hand under the sheets, presumably to hold Richard’s hand.  Takes her second hand over the sheet, and clasps her hands, again as if she were hold his hand.]

[When she speaks, she speaks slowly and deliberately, as if controlling herself.  Speaks intensely, looking intently at Richard’s face.]

[Elaine]  Richard.  Honey…  I’m back.  How are you?..  [Looks over her shoulder with a hint of disdain.  Then continues, half speaking to herself…]  I’m surprised that Trevor found the time to slip out of the office…  But I guess with that cell phone of his, he never left the office.

[Looks back at her husband]

Richard.  Can you hear me?  If you can hear me, try to make some sign to me…  Maybe try to squeeze my hand,.. or open your eyes.  [Looks at Richard pleadingly…]  Richard.  Richard?  [Brings her forehead down to her hands in an apparent moment of despair.]

[Lifts up head, and looks again at Richard.]

I spoke to Angela a little while ago.  She’ll be here in a few minutes.  She said she wants to see you.  I don’t think she’s fully understood how she’s going to find you.  I avoided going in to all the details, seeing it’s been so long...

Who would’ve thought that this is what would bring you two back into the same room together after six months.  I mean, I was dreaming… hoping… that one of you would take the first step…  Of course, Angela’s got some of the famous “Johnson Family pride” from her father, and her father…  Well, her father never took a break from work to…  to…  [Breaks down somewhat, shaking head.]

[Very emotionally…]

Oh Richard…  Richard…  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  You always said you were preparing a future for us.  You said that soon you would be able to shift down from work.  You said you just needed time to set ourselves up securely…  that there would be time later to have the type of family life that we wanted.

[Pausing, reflectively…]

…That break from your work always seemed to be right around the corner.  How many times did I listen to you say, “I can’t have anyone telling me how to spend my time until I’ve made sure our future is secure.”  I know you meant what you said…  I know you said it from love... [On the verge of sobbing again]  …How I’d give the world just to hear you say anything again…

[Pulls herself together again.  Speaks with more assurance.]

Maybe I should have been more forceful with you all those years.  You said there would be time later to get involved in the things that were important to us:.. family, vacations, involvement in the community and church.  [Thinks, half laughs cynically…]  It’s funny what you said about church,..  “Since we’re giving financially to the church, we shouldn’t feel obliged to get involved.”

[Continues reflecting back, with cynical humor]  Then there was your other pet peeve with church: [Imitating a man’s grumpy voice…]  “I don’t need other people or clergy telling me how I can make a difference with my life!  There are 26 people who have jobs because of the way I’ve chosen to spend my time.”

[Pauses…  Looks dreamily ahead…]

How I crave the routine…  Hearing you get up.  Preparing your breakfast while you take your shower.  Having you drop me off on your way to work.  [Face brightens…]  Having you surprise me sometimes for lunch.  [serious again.]  Waiting for you to come home in the evening…

[Pausing, shaking her clasped hands…]

O Richard, Richard…  Why were we so concerned about building a future?  Why weren’t we wise enough to build a present.  [Breaks down…]  Just another day…  Just give me another normal day…  Let me wake up beside you again…

[Angela pokes her head into the room/scene cautiously]

Angela:  Mom?  Mom? Are you okay?

[Angela walks into the room and puts her arm around Elaine, who is sobbing silently, her face in her hands.  After a few moments, Elaine stands up, turns to Angela and they hug briefly.  When they are done hugging, Elaine looks Angela in the face.]

Elaine:  Angela!  I’m so glad you came.  It’s so hard for me to see your father like this.  It’s so hard to face all this alone.

[Suddenly remembering her father is there, Angela turns and looks at Richard in the bed intently.]

Angela:  How is he?  How bad is it?  [Pauses, becomes very serious]  I didn’t imagine anything like this.  What do the doctors say?

Elaine:  I’m sorry, I didn’t feel I could try to describe this [gesturing at the bed] over the phone...  [Rubs her hand over her face in anguish.]

Angela:  [Repeating]  Mom!  What are the doctors saying?

Elaine:  [Pulling herself together again.]  I’m sorry:  The doctors say that he is deep in a coma.  They say that if he comes out of it, it won’t be for several weeks.  They say he may be able to hear and understand what we say to him, but they have no way of knowing for sure.  [Continues seriously…]  They say overall, he only has a 50-50 chance. [Puts on a stronger face] Angela, I know it’s been a long time since you’ve seen your father…  since you moved out because of your disagreements with him.  Why don’t I just leave you alone with him for a few minutes.  Talk to him – maybe he’ll hear you.

Angela:  Yeah.  [Pensive, purses lips…]  Yeah, that would be good…  Maybe just a few minutes.

[They hug briefly again.  Elaine leaves slowly.  Angela turns toward the bed and leans slightly down toward her father’s face.  She speaks tenderly, and softly.]

Angela: Daddy?  Daddy?  Can you hear me?  It’s me, Angel.  Your little angel.  I came to see you again.

[Pauses.  Sees no response.  Slides into the chair, but still looks intently at Richard’s face.  Continues courageously.]

Daddy.  I came back to see you.  Mom told me what had happened.  I wanted to see you again.

[Pauses, and then stops waiting for a response from Richard.  Continues speaking, but not necessarily as if she’s speaking directly to him, or as if she  expects him to be listening.]

You know, I always used to think that if I could just get you to stop telling me what to do, and just listen to me,.. really listen,.. then maybe we’d get beyond our differences.  Who would have thought that this is the way it would have to happen.

[Angela reaches on to the bed, as if grasping a hand or an arm.  Speaks seriously, with affection.]

Daddy, if you can hear me, I want you to know: I love you.  I’m so sorry this has happened.  No matter how angry I ever got with you, it doesn’t matter anymore.  I love you.  [More softly, nodding…]  I love you.

Communication has always been a problem between us, hasn’t it?  When we both had our voices, we could only fight.  Now when I finally have your ears, I don’t know what to say.  [Falters a bit]

[Begins tentatively again…]

Since I don’t know what to say now, let me imagine what you might say to me,.. if you could say something…  [Thinks for a moment, then begins again more brightly]  I bet I know what you’d ask me – the standard “Career and Future” question…  [Slowly, shaking head]  I still haven’t decided if I’ll be going to university – [haltingly]  I’m not sure it’s for me, [shaking head again] especially now. And I suspect that if I gave you that answer, you’d try and give me one of your Richard Johnson motivational speeches: [Imitating, gesturing with hand]  Set your course…  Make people listen to you…


Mom always used to say that we always had our shouting matches because we were too much alike.  It was like the Johnson pride vs. the Johnson pride.

[Pauses.  Speaks next paragraph slowly and carefully.]

I really did learn a lot from you about how to get what I want.  I’ve been thinking about the things you used to say to motivate me.  You used to tell me, “You don’t have to listen to anybody.  Set your course, bend the elements to your will.”  [Snickers under breath…]  I guess that advice applied only as long as I wasn’t dealing with you.

[Continues sadly.  Shaking head.]

I’m not sure this worked for either of us.  I’m only eighteen – I’m not so sure anymore that I’m stronger than the elements. And you’re only 48 and…  [Stops, catches herself.]

Maybe there are some things in life that get deformed when we bend them to our own will.  …Like relationships, and daughters, and fathers…  Maybe it’s better to be molded and shaped ourselves, rather than always trying to be the one doing the hammering and chiseling.

[Continues, almost in monologue…Raised voice, as if imitating a middle-aged man]

“Don’t listen to anyone or anything but your own instinct.  Don’t worry about the expectations of men, or the standards of heaven.”  [Pauses.]  I can’t tell if that’s Richard Johnson or Angela Johnson.


Then there was that other precept of yours: “Sometimes it’s only those who shout the loudest who get ahead.  It’s only once they’ve heard you, that you can be sure they’re listening.”  [Looks down in slight embarrassment or shame.]   I guess as long as we lived in the same house, we had that one down pat. [Continues absent-mindedly.]  “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”  That’s what you used to say to your little angel.

[More reflectively]

The more I think about that one, the more I have doubts.  I think I’ve learned something since I moved out six months ago, something about listening, and what’s important.  I’ve had more time to myself.  More time to think.  More time to listen to my silence.  Less time to shout my noise.  I’ve even been reading that little paperback Bible that Mom gave me when I moved out.

[Turns to face Richard more directly.]

Maybe rather than shouting louder, we should be listening more intently.  And maybe rather than listening to those who shout the loudest, we should be listening to those who only speak in a whisper, or listening to those who don’t use words at all…  those who speak simply to the heart.

[Bows her head onto Richard.]

© Tom Woodley
All rights reserved
This play may be performed free of charge, on the condition that copies are not sold for profit in any medium, nor any entrance fee charged. In exchange for free performance, the author would appreciate being notified of when and for what purpose the play is performed. He may be contacted at: