Finding solace in musical theater

Diana Handy, right, portrays the fairy godmother seeking to help Cinderella, played by Kristiana McKelvey. The musical comedy “Cinderella” continues weekends at LifeHouse Theater through Oct. 13.

Her daughter introduced Diana Handy to the joys of theater. And it was theater that helped console Diana when she lost her daughter.

Diana is well known to Inland Empire theater audiences for her portrayals of countless comic characters in many musicals. A Redlands Bowl summer musical veteran, she has performed in “Cinderella,” “Mary Poppins” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

She also tours in various traveling productions, sings in choirs, plays guitar and clarinet, and regularly serves as cantor for Spanish mass at the Holy Name of Jesus Church in Redlands.

“I’ve always loved music,” Diana beamed. “I grew up with it. My dear parents were musically inclined and loved taking me to theater and ballet at a young age. I even formed a singing group with my friends. We called ourselves The Apple Cores.”

Performing on stage in musicals has become Diana’s first love.

“My daughter DiaJonae led me to theater in her youth,” she recalled wistfully. “I had enrolled her in a summer drama camp that she expressed interest in. She soon landed a part in a major musical at age 12. It was a beautiful, affirming experience for a young girl who didn’t believe anything good about herself.”

Traumatic childhood circumstances burdened DiaJonae with low self-esteem and an eating disorder.

“She could not see the beautiful girl she was inside and out,” Diana explained. “She was using her own private logic. No other way of thinking could penetrate. But she was able to find a kind of oasis in theater performances.”

DiaJonae’s contagious enthusiasm successfully lured brothers Burrell and Isaac into the theater world.

“What fun we had!” Diana remembered. “We spent hours and hours in rehearsals together laughing and singing. And DiaJonae loved it all so much, she would perform in productions with or without us. It made me hopeful for her. But I soon realized she was not well.”

Unknown to others, between DiaJonae’s numerous roles, there were suicide attempts, hospitalizations, sessions with therapists and stays at clinics.

Then came a day that Diana calls the most unimaginable and traumatic of her life — the day DiaJonae succeeded in taking her own life.

“It’s been over nine years,” Diana said. “Yet it seems like yesterday because it is never far from mind. I asked God to never let me ask why. I knew there could not be an answer, so why torture myself?”

Solace came from many friends expressing their care.

“My theater cohorts called to ask if I would be in a couple of upcoming productions,” she said. “I felt as if God put it on their hearts to reach out to me. He knew it would be better for me to grieve with friends than go through that alone.”

Diana decided to accept the invitation. “I believe this time at the theater saved my life,” she said tearfully. “I was cast in a musical about the biblical Jonah. Some of the lyrics I sang included the words, ‘He’s not mine, he’s not yours’ as I held a 5-month-old baby playing Jonah.”

Those moments on stage were a revelation.

“It was the most therapeutic message from God,” she said. “I realized my daughter ultimately belonged to Him no matter what. Being placed in a role to sing that particular song was like a divine appointment. Reflecting on the lyrics was a major step toward peace and understanding.”

Peace and understanding is what Diana seeks to promote in her professional work as a school principal and teacher.

“I want parents to understand that many children today are in a battle for their lives,” she stated. “To parents I say, spend time with your families. Spend time with your children individually. Tell them you love them, you need them, and you want them.”

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross spent many years interviewing individuals and their families as they faced death.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths,” she wrote. “They have an understanding of life that fills them with compassion and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Like a gem polished in life’s tumbler of adversity and loss, Diana Handy sparkles beautifully. She still lights up the stage — a loving tribute to her daughter, DiaJonae.

Wayne R. Scott is an award-winning writer, producer and director who serves as President of LifeHouse Theater, Redlands.