By Juergen Tossman. Photos courtesy Bunbury Theatre.
Entire contents copyright © 2015 Juergen Tossman. All rights reserved.
There are no words that can express the collective sadness that the Bunbury family and the Louisville arts community feels over the loss of Liz Vissing. The term one-of-kind may be a cliché, and perhaps over used, but I can’t think of a better term to describe this amazing woman and her contribution to her chosen art form and the craft in which she was dedicated. Liz was a consummate professional who gave generously as an artist and who always applied her craft to each and every unforgettable role. She was a devoted mother who cared for her children and grandchildren. In speaking with her son Paul yesterday, he said, “She was the best mother in the world. No one could have had a better mother.”
I first met Liz over twenty years ago. A vivacious spit fire that held a place in the Louisville radio scene for over a decade, she auditioned for me after having already performed at all of the major theatres in town. Her enthusiasm and energy was infectious and I knew right away that if there was such a thing as a theatrical stable, that she would be one of the main attractions. She sang like an angel and her versatility led her to myriad roles with the company. From I Do, I Do to Radio Gals to Dearly Departed, Cemetery Club and Moon over Buffalo to mention a few, Liz graced the Bunbury stage with her comedic style and tenacious attitude.
Several years ago she was diagnosed with cancer; a type of lymphoma that robs one of energy and spirit. Liz, a very private person, didn’t want people to know she was battling with this disease. She with her husband (of nearly 60 years) Bernie worked through the cancer and she beat it. So, in 2012 she came to me and asked if there might be a role in the season. I indeed had a role for her in Kelly Kingston Strayer’s A Southern Exposure and I had thought about replacing another show in the season with the modern classic The Gin Game. I knew it would be a perfect play for her. With Matt Orme as Weller, they presented one of the most amazing performances of that year. To watch Matt and Liz together was indeed a treat of a lifetime as they brought a collective 130 years to the stage. In a review for Arts-Louisville, Keith Waits wrote, “The script is fertile ground for two good actors to work in, and this production features fine work from a couple of veteran players. Liz Vissing never gets too prim and proper, and balances the character’s lack of guile with a nice starchy quality. Matt Orme builds his frustration with such care and intelligent observation that Weller’s explosive anger seems entirely natural. Together they discover the humor organically, from within the story, anchoring their work in the humanity of the characters. The discipline of the performances perfectly matches the restraint of the script.”
After that performance we moved onto A Southern Exposure, where we were having a wonderful rehearsal process. Liz was on a roll, and I was convinced this would be a great theatrical year for her; but the big “C” came back. During the last week of rehearsal her legs were swelling up and things just didn’t seem natural. With much encouragement from the cast, we suggested that she consult with her doctor, knowing that nothing would stand in the way of Liz doing this production. After a strange diagnosis, Liz went into the hospital two days before we opened. Alice Chiles came in to take Liz’s place. We all knew this was extremely painful for Liz; she would rather have died on stage than give up that role.
From April of 2012 through the end of that year, Liz and Bernie suffered through one diagnosis after another. In 2013 we had several reports that the cancer had returned and that Liz’s days were numbered. At one point at the end of 2013 I called Bernie and he said that Liz was in Hospice care and they didn’t know how long it would be, that it was a matter of time. It seemed as if the entire community was praying for Liz and hoping for a peaceful end for this gracious spirit. I put out a feeler and asked if people wanted to send a note to Liz and that I would be happy to compile them all in a letter. One of the most memorable ones was from Norma Lewis. Norma is a 90 plus veteran of WWII and a member of The Cherokee Round Table. She wrote, “My dear lovely, funny Liz. Every time I hear your name, a smile comes to my face. Why? Because of many reasons, but here’s a few. While at a party at Cy Webber’s house, I tasted the most phenomenal clam dip and asked Cy who made it. Cy introduced you to me and the rest is history. My encounters with you were never without a smile or some giggling, if so warranted. I’d see you as a beautiful fairy princess in a children’s production and then I’d see you performing at Bunbury knocking everyone’s socks off with your comedic timing. I never knew what to expect…. only knew that you were awesome in any role you undertook and I’d love every minute of your performance. I’m your biggest fan and I thought you ought to know that.
I believe that I talked again with Bernie in early 2014 and Liz was still hanging on. He said, “Juergen I can’t believe it, but she is still with us.” Through all of the suffering none of Liz’s friends gave up hope. We all prayed and then it happened. Hollywood couldn’t have crafted it better! It was a miracle. Bernie told me she turned a corner and for us to continue praying for her…and we did.
In May of 2014, my heart stopped when I received a call in the middle of the afternoon. “Hello Juergen, it’s Liz.” Oh my! I couldn’t believe it. She sounded fantastic. I asked how she was doing. “Juergen, all I can say is that it’s a miracle and I can’t explain it but I’m feeling much better and the doctors can’t seem to find the cancer.” I was overjoyed! I truly felt that I had witnessed the most amazing miracle and I was thrilled to hear her voice. She asked if there was anything she could audition for in the upcoming season. As is my custom, I generally write the holiday production and I had a working title and a few sketchy scenes and said, “Liz, come to the auditions so I can see you and let’s get you back on our stage!” She came, I saw her and together we developed a character for her that brought her back to the boards with a vengeance. Forgive Me it’s Christmas was a great challenge for Liz and she dug deep to meet the craggy old character that ultimately finds her heart. Craig Highley in his review for Arts Louisville wrote…” Liz Vissing steals the show as their loud-mouthed and opinionated sister, Dorothy. Vissing has been away from the stage for a while, and she has truly been missed. It’s great to see her return full force in a performance to be reckoned with.”
At the end of June, Liz would give her final performance on the Bunbury stage in Irene O’Garden’s “Women on Fire.” It was a most fitting role as she played a ninety-year-old woman who had lived a lifetime of struggle and pain, but through it all she saw the beauty and the light of life. Her monologue was stunning! It could not have been a more fitting role for an actor who was entering the stage for one final curtain call. Each time I watched that performance it sent chills up and down my spine. As I sat at the top of the house waiting for her entrance, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful return this was for Liz. I was so looking forward to her continued contribution to the theatre and to the audiences that loved her so. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. So, she left us with a feeling of love and joy. Her final utterance in that show was: “You wanna blame someone? Blame yourself for forgetting what’s going on right now. The beauty of this world. And don’t you tell me I don’t know what grief is. I dance my drunk Daddy. I dance my dead daughter. Free ain’t somethin’ you get when you buy somethin’. It’s a psalm you sing yourself. Remember you can fill a room with your joy. Remember this is what you really want.” And then she sang, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart…”
Liz you filled a room with your joy. You were a miracle. This community is forever blessed to have had you with us, and we’re confident a brighter light is shining on you now!
Juergen K. Tossmann is an accomplished director, actor and playwright, and has been Bunbury Theatre’s Producing/Artistic Director for more than 20 years.