Dr. Mary Ann Frank could tell something wasn’t right with her husband, the world-renowned researcher Dr. Ralph Hoffman. He had reported feeling very tired and his focus was off, which was unusual for a scientist of his stature.
“I had an inkling something was wrong. He didn’t want to hear it,” Frank said, recalling the months leading up to the shocking moment in late-2014 when her husband was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an especially aggressive form of brain cancer. “The tumor begins slowly, quietly, insidiously. All of a sudden, he had a tremor. Then the symptoms could not be ignored. It was insidious, and I understood the meaning of denial like I never had before.”
The news rocked the couple to their core. Hoffman was a well-respected Professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and Medical Director of the Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital’s Adult Intensive Outpatient Program. Frank, a clinical psychologist and expert in eating and weight disorders, had a thriving private practice. “We were a husband and wife industry,” she said. “We were treating the mentally ill in New Haven. People with serious mental illness.”
And they were in a good place, personally. Together they had raised their now-23-year-old twins, Lily and Lucas, and after nearly three decades of marriage were on a comfortable and productive glide path in their careers and at home. “I could not have loved Ralph more. I could not have respected him more. He was a gift that was brought to me,” Frank said.
Hoffman died at home surrounded by his family and dear friends on Feb. 1, 2016. The scientific world had lost a gifted translational neuroscientist who pioneered work on the pathophysiology and treatment of auditory hallucinations in schizophrenia. For Frank, the loss was personal. “He is irreplaceable,” she said. “But love isn’t irreplaceable.”
Fast forward to 2019. That deep love and affection has manifested itself on stage in a one-woman show that Frank – also an accomplished singer, actress and storyteller – wrote herself and will perform June 19-23 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
“Spinning,” as described on the Long Wharf website, “is an extraordinarily intimate 80-minute encounter with Frank. It refers to the early disorientation of grief, but also to Mary Ann’s capacity to spin – through story and song – a tale of a spirited marriage cut heartbreakingly short just as it was poised to renew itself. Buoying herself and her husband by singing and performing throughout his illness and continuing to do so after his death, (Frank) transforms herself. Mary Ann is a powerful spinner of deep and deeply hilarious tales of family love, incomprehensible loss, and the power of music to open a path toward resilience, healing, and hope.”
The idea to write the show came to Frank even before her husband became ill, although she immersed herself in the project as a way to cope while he was sick. She said she had unwavering support from her friends and colleagues at Yale while she wrote, and although the show had yet to morph into its current form, she performed it for her husband before he died.
"I said to him, ‘I’ve made you immortal,’ she said. “And he said, ‘It’s about time.’ He was himself.”
In pursuing a venue to perform the musical, Frank said her challenge was how to make something personal into something the public could identify with. She took universally appreciated emotions of grief and love and crafted a story through music. “Spinning” features a variety of pop songs from the 1930s through early 2000s, but also original music.
Frank, who trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has acted and performed at numerous venues, said she wants the audience to feel a sense of hope when they watch her perform.
“People are afraid of death and loss. They don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “Both as a psychotherapist and a performer, I have a platform to say this is how we talk about it. If I can talk about it, then you can too.”
Performing also puts Frank at peace. “What I meet people or talk about the show it’s a way of remembering Ralph,” she said. “The eternal thing is love. We are robbed as we grow older of many things. But you can never be robbed of love and memory. A single way that love remains eternal is through song.”
“Spinning” will be performed at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre June 19-23. To learn more about the production and to purchase tickets please click here.