Grieving together, growing together: Author turns heartbreak into poetry, drama

FARGO -- When Carol Kapaun Ratchenski's young son, Kevin, died of cancer in 1999, she grieved as any mother would. As the years passed, she grieved in a way only she could, writing about that painful experience in deeply personal and poignant poems.
Writer Carol Kapaun Ratchenski's (left) poems dealing with the loss of her young son, "A Beautiful Hell," has been adapted for the stage by Laurie K. Baker (center) and directed by Carrie Wintersteen of Theatre B (right). John Lamb / The Forum

FARGO - When Carol Kapaun Ratchenski's young son, Kevin, died of cancer in 1999, she grieved as any mother would. As the years passed, she grieved in a way only she could, writing about that painful experience in deeply personal and poignant poems.

Those collected verses were published as "A Beautiful Hell" in 2016. On Friday, Sept. 7, a play based on that book will be produced at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. The production is part of Humanities North Dakota's 2018 GameChanger Ideas Festival.

Openly discussing such a personal tragedy is important not only to Ratchenski, but anyone who wants to listen.

"It's important to find a connection in loss instead of a separation in loss," Ratchenski says. "I believe healing takes connection."

Making connections

This production gave the writer a series of connections as her book was adapted for the stage by Laurie K. Baker and directed by Carrie Wintersteen for Theatre B.

Ratchenski reached out to her collaborators after she started public readings of the poems.

"It started to feel like it could be a theater production. I have a fantasy of being Eve Ensler," Ratchenski says, referring to the playwright of "The Vagina Monologues."

A long-time friend of the writer, Baker had read most of the works before the book was even published and they had talked about Kevin's life and death. While she was "surprised and flattered" that Ratchenski asked her to adapt her poems for the stage, Baker did have some reservations about reworking not just her friend's words, but also her life.

Even when adding other voices - there are four roles in the play - Baker tried to stay as close to Ratchenski's written word.

"I tried to keep the poetry intact when possible," Baker says. "There's more poetic language than in the typical play... The big challenge is to take one woman's story and make it into many voices. Fortunately, Carol is a complex person."

And the work is just as complex. Amidst the anxiety and sorrow of accompanying someone as they face their death, Ratchenski also finds light and hope in her experiences.

"I did go into it kind of blindly," Baker says. "I didn't recognize the emotions I'd go through to do the writing... I had a number of mini-emotional breakdowns because the work is powerful, to feel the hell and blessing and the dance between them. I have deeply come to appreciate the title."

Ratchenski has somewhat had a hand in reworking her story, but just over a week before Friday's opening production, she had yet to see a rehearsal. Producer David Wintersteen asked if she could remain quiet if she came to a rehearsal. She stayed home instead.

Monday night, Sept. 3, however, Ratchenski was at Theatre B, sitting by Baker and Carrie Wintersteen as they went over notes and talked to the actors.

"Everybody's total life story is different and beautiful and we can learn if we tell the truth about our stories," she says.

If you go

What: "A Beautiful Hell"

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7

Where: Empire Arts Center, 415 Demers Ave., Grand Forks

Info: Tickets are $10; https://www.gamechangernd.com