Robert Parks Johnson vividly remembers the day in spring 2010 when a doctor told him he had cancer.
"He says, 'I've been doing this for 25 years,'" Johnson recalls. "'Everybody reacts differently. Some people get depressed. Some people get religious. Some people get angry. And some of those people live, and some of those people die.
"The ones who give up, they all die.'"
Deborah Zoe Laufer's 2007 play End Days shows a family going through post-traumatic throes after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The show opens this week at Actors Guild of Lexington.
Johnson, who learned in June that he was cancer-free, plays Arthur, a man who worked in the World Trade Center and managed to escape the towers before they fell.
The play is set two years after the attack, and since then, he has barely gotten out of his pajamas. His daughter went goth and has become the object of affection for the boy next door, who always wears an Elvis costume as a sort of security blanket.
His formerly atheist wife, Sylvia, has become a fundamentalist Christian who has determined that the Rapture will be on Wednesday.
Actors Guild's artistic director, Eric Seale, says the show was selected before California preacher Harold Camping's much-ballyhooed prediction that the rapture would be May 21s. Camping, who has since suffered a stroke, has revised his prediction to Oct. 21.
"It was really weird when that happened because we had just announced this show, and then this guy starts predicting the Rapture," Seale says.
He says the coming 10th anniversary of 9/11 was in the back of his mind when picking the play, but what really made him want to do the show was Laufer's script, which he says explores the dynamics of a shaken family with humor and respect.
And Johnson says End Days makes reference to 9/11 and the Rapture, but that's not what the show is about or could ever be about.
"The truth is, that event was so big, I don't know how you could ever tell that story in a play," Johnson says of 9/11. "The story you can tell is what happens to people, and how people find ways to navigate through the choppy water and get back to life. If you can tell that story, it's not about 9/11; it's about life. Because everybody's life goes through hideous, deadly impossible things, and they find ways to get back to them."
And that's another important point about the play, the cast and the director say: It has a respect for the ways people navigate those waters. The characters include Jesus Christ and celebrated scientist Stephen Hawking (both played by Adam Luckey), who have meaningful encounters with the characters in the show.
"They're both answers to questions people have about the universe, people's own universe," Luckey says. "They are paths to understanding: One is trying to map it all out, and one is saying faith is what you need."
Alex Maddox, who plays Nelson, the Elvis-costume-wearing Jewish kid, says, "Religion and science, faith and proof are brought up several times throughout the play. It's pretty interesting."
Religion and science often end up at odds, but cast members say that End Days does not take sides.
"It's not a sendup of religion or of rationalism," Johnson says. "It's not a parody. The playwright takes Jesus as a person and Sylvia as a Christian very seriously."
Luckey says, "Ultimately, it's respectful to the whole idea of what floats your boat."
And the play acknowledges pain and a family hurled into dysfunction by horrific events while also portraying healing.
"Something I love about this family is they don't give up," Johnson says. "They run and hide, or they find things to stuff into the empty places, they lash out, but they don't give up.
"It's a play about a family that is hiding from the world, and thanks to this lunatic boy who lives across the street, they're all sort of compelled to come back to life and be a family again. In the end, it's really sweet. It's a romantic comedy about the apocalypse."