You Can’t Save Me

Ada’s hospital bed lies in the middle of a theater stage, its back tilted forward as hospital beds do, such that Ada is half sitting, half reclining. It feels like the upstairs stage at Steppenwolf which is in-the-round, and it occurs to me to feel bad for the audience seated behind the bed since they can’t see what’s going on. But maybe there are no audience members behind. Everything is pitch black except for Ada, her bed, and Mildred puttering about next to her, all illuminated by spot lights. All is completely silent, except maybe the soft sounds of Mildred’s shoes against the stage floor.

Mildred wears a traditional light blue nurse’s dress with white smock and white bonnet. She has her back to Ada and faces a small stage-prop table meant to represent something medical. A small assortment of medical tools and supplies have been carefully arrayed across the top, intentionally appearing haphazard, so that the actress playing Mildred can rearrange them during the scene, giving her something to do with her hands instead of dangling them lifelessly at her side. In a stage voice that at first always sounds so disconcerting as the actor projects what should be quiet words, Ada says, “You can’t save me.”

Mildred’s shoulders tense, but she remains silent. She stops rearranging the tools and supplies on the table.

“You can’t save me,” Ada repeats, observing Mildred’s reaction.

Mildred turns, looks Ada in the eye, and in her own stage voice, with a considered lightness and bravado that she doesn’t feel, replies, “I know.” She says it as though responding to a reminder about something of utter insignificance that had just slipped her mind, but which she feels slightly silly to have forgotten.

Holding Mildred’s gaze with her own, Ada repeats yet again, “You can’t save me.” Mildred nods her acquiescence as the two of them continue to look into each other’s eyes and the stage lights fall and all becomes blackness.


It is important, perhaps, to point out that Ada was not saying “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic or literary sense. Usually the character who says it has given up hope and is saying so to their interlocutor. It usually means “I am beyond saving.” There is an implied “from” that follows the verb “save”. For Ada, however, there is no “from”. She cannot be saved because there is nothing from which to save her. She does not consider herself to be in peril, or to be suffering from anything that would permit the word “save” to be used in a logically and grammatically correct way.

Of course she does also mean “You can’t save me” in the standard cinematic and literary second sense of “You must not try to save me,” but here again, for a different reason. For in order to save someone, the would-be savior must believe that the other needs to be saved, and that salvation is possible. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that Ada’s second meaning is “You must not believe that there is anything from which I need to be saved. You have no responsibility to try, because there is nothing to try.”