Real as Air: Swanson documents his sister’s battle with ALS through playwriting


Written by Professor Richard Swanson and directed by Jayna Fitzsimmons, Real as Air looks into the life of Kathy Swanson, Richard Swanson’s sister, and her battle with ALS.  

Starting in 2006 when Kathy was first diagnosed with ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, she and her brother began writing letters back and forth talking of her struggle with accepting her new lifestyle and not allowing the disease to define her.  

ALS is a disease that attacks the nervous system, weakens muscles and impacts a person’s physical function. There are fewer than 20,000 cases in the United States per year, but someone who is diagnosed with ALS in its early stages lives about two to five years.

Swanson and his sister were very close.  Growing up, they would find themselves in passionate arguments that would involve both of them standing on tables and chairs, competing to stand higher above the other.  Swanson recalled a moment with his sister after she was diagnosed.

“One day, we were sitting in our living room arguing about something because it’s what we did for fun,” said Swanson. “Well she looked up and said, ‘How are you going to learn anything after I die?’ Anything either of us was trying to figure out we would argue through together. She was exceedingly bright. Everything I had learned, I had learned by thinking it through with her.”  

Swanson wanted to keep his sister’s memory alive, so he turned to the large volume of letters they exchanged.  At first, he thought about putting them into a book, but he could not edit and rewrite the words that had been said, so he went to Augustana’s theatre director, Jayna Fitzsimmons.  

Swanson invited Fitzsimmons into his personal life and entrusted her with making a play that would honor Kathy’s memory.  

“[Swanson and his family] put a lot of trust in me and our theatre company,” Fitzsimmons said. “I just want to honor their trust and allow Kathy’s legacy to live on.”

In Real as Air, there are three characters: Richard Swanson, his sister Kathy and her best friend Cheryl Swanson. Cheryl, Richard’s wife, was introduced to him by Kathy.

Three characters may seem like a small cast, but there’s a twist. Each role is played by three different actors throughout the play to represent the different versions of themselves and the complexity of each character. All nine actors are on stage at the same time.  

The multilayered set consists of a large collection of home items we collect throughout our lives in the same way we collect memories—from various pieces of furniture, to picture frames and stuffed animals. Many of the items are placed out of reach or slowly removed from stage to represent the gradual loss of access and mobility people with ALS experience as their condition worsens.

At each practice, Swanson sits and watches the performers. He listens to the last conversations he had with his sister and admires what each actor and actress brings to the stage.

“It’s fascinating. The thing that strikes me above all is the kindness of the performers, the generosity. These words are precious to me, and when these actors pick them up, they pick them up with such kindness, tenderness, and respect and it’s an honor to sit and watch them do that.”  

Swanson finishes by saying, “It is a privilege to know such people. They honor my sister, they honor me, they honor my wife.  It is also a real delight to hear my sister’s voice again.”

The Augustana Theatre Company will present Real as Air on Sept. 28-29 at 7:30 p.m. and on September 30 at 2:30 p.m. in the Edith Mortenson Theatre.

In the final scene of “Real as Air”, the three actors who play Kathy prepare for her final breath.

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