When an actor can no longer act

KateEifrig.jpgIf you’re a fan of Twin Cities theater, chances are you’ve seen Kate Eifrig on stage. The statuesque dark haired actress is known equally for her skill with drama and comedy, and has been a regular presence in the work of the Guthrie Theater, Ten Thousand Things, and other highly regarded companies.

But at the same time as she was giving stellar performances onstage (Tony Kushner raved about her performance of First Lady Laura Bush in “Tiny Kushner”), Eifrig was increasingly suffering from a mysterious illness which took its toll on her both physically and mentally. Numerous specialists were unable to come up with a firm diagnosis. According to a website dedicated to her recovery, “By 2010 she had had four episodes of tree-trunk edema (usually only found in seniors and the more elderly) and by March of 2011 she’d lost and gained 20-25 pounds five times.”

After several depressive episodes which led to trips to emergency rooms, in July of 2011 Eifrig was forced to admit herself into the hospital.

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Kate Eifrig in Blithe Spirit at the Jungle Theater

Photo by Michal Daniel

Doctors now believe that Eifrig suffers from what is known as “treatment resistant” or “treatment refractory” major depression, which, as its name implies, is not easily treated through medication or other methods.

Close friends, like Melodie Bahan, have rallied around Eifrig to provide what support they can. Bahan says Eifrig is now entering her fourth consecutive year of a depressive episode.

One of her doctors described her condition to her as analogous to someone walking around with untreated heart disease. Her job right now is to focus on getting better. Even though her health started to decline in 2008, she continued to do amazing work until October of last year, when she did “August/Osage County” at Park Square. I know work has gotten progressively more difficult for her over the years and the last few shows took a toll – although you wouldn’t have known that if you were sitting in the house watching her. But now, not only is she unable to act, she can’t even work a “day job.”

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Kate Eifrig as First Lady Laura Bush in “Tiny Kushner” at the Guthrie Theater

Photo by Michal Daniel

While traditional treatments have had no positive effect on Eifrig’s condition, she is hoping that an alternative treatment may provide her some relief, and even a little joy.

When a psychotherapist recently asked Eifrig if there was anything that had ever helped her depression, she responded jokingly “a dog.”

His response?

“I’ve prescribed dogs for people.”

Learn more about Mental Health Service Dogs

Unfortunately, mental health service dogs come at a steep price. Eifrig’s friends have created a website to help her raise the $20,000 necessary for the dog and its training – training that will be specific to her condition and needs. This is a treatment that’s not covered by health insurance. And while Eifrig has health insurance as a member of Actors Equity, that coverage will lapse if she doesn’t return to the stage.

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Kate Eifrig as Catherine Petkoff in “Arms and the Man” at the Guthrie Theater

Photo by Michal Daniel

At this point, Melodie Bahan admits she doesn’t know if Eifrig will ever be able to return to acting:

This is the sort of illness that is definitely life-changing. Given her history, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kate gravitated toward working in the mental health field – perhaps combining her artistic talent with her life experience in some way. I just want her to get her life back, to be able to work, to be able to walk without pain, to be able to live. I believe a mental health service dog is going to give her the healing she needs to accomplish that.

You can find out more about Kate Eifrig and her condition here.

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