A Don’t Hug Me coma

Life imitates art as the long-running play’s star has a real-life medical emergency

Photo courtesy of Phil Olson Ross hasn’t said if he met any menacing spirits while in his coma, like his character does.

Photo courtesy of Phil Olson
Ross hasn’t said if he met any menacing spirits while in his coma, like his character does.

Kari Heistad
Edina, Minn.

The life of an actor is usually quite different from the life of their character. Until August 6 of this year, that was true for Minnesota actor, Ross Young.

For the nine years that it has been performed in Minnesota, Young has starred as “Gunner,” the leading male role in the musical A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol by Phil Olson with music by Paul Olson. As its name suggests, this Christmas comedy is a take on Charles Dickens’ famous tale, but with a Norwegian-American twist. It is set in the fictional Midwestern town of Bunyon Bay, where the curmudgeonly Gunner owns a bar with his wife Clara. The major conflict of the play stems from Clara’s frustration with the lack of romance in their marriage. True to a stoic Norwegian, Gunner chooses to go out into a snowstorm rather than face his disgruntled wife, the result of which is a serious snowmobile accident that leaves him in a coma. It is in this state that Gunner is taken by Norwegian folk legend Sven Yorgenson on a journey like that of Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future.

This year’s performance will likely seem less like a fantasy to the members of the Don’t Hug Me cast. Less than three months ago they got the call that their long-time colleague and friend, Ross Young, had suffered a cardiac arrest, lapsed into a coma, and might not wake up.

The incident occurred the week before Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married—the latest installment in the series of musicals (there are five in total)—was meant to open in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Young had been sitting at his desk answering a few e-mails when all of a sudden he collapsed. His wife immediately called 9-1-1 and administered CPR until the emergency services arrived, but Young remained unresponsive for over an hour. “They were pretty much ready to give up,” according to Young, “and then they got a pulse.” But the worry was not over yet. Young’s family and friends would have to wait anxiously for another week before he finally awoke from the coma.

It appeared a severely damaged mitral valve had caused the cardiac arrest and Young would have to undergo open-heart surgery to replace it. During the procedure, the surgeons also implanted a defibrillator, which now monitors Young’s heartbeats and will, in the case of cardiac arrest, administer a shock to his heart. Fortunately, Young’s doctors believe a second cardiac arrest is very unlikely.

When people hear about Ross Young’s story, they are most intrigued by the strange connection between his experience and the experience of his character Gunner. When I asked about the bizarre coincidence, Young said that the link didn’t occur to him right away. The Don’t Hug Me show, on the other hand, was one of his first thoughts upon regaining consciousness. In fact, after greeting his wife and best friend, Young immediately asked, “Has anybody called Phil?” Meaning Phil Olson, of course, the playwright of all of the Don’t Hug Me musicals. “As an actor,” Young explained, “the show must go on.” He admitted that during the first week of his hospital stay he even found himself thinking, “maybe I can do a matinee in Alexandria,” an idea he now says was “crazy.”

Crazy, perhaps, but not surprising coming from Young. During our interview, it took less than an hour for me to recognize that Ross Young is as diligent and passionate about his work as it gets. After only two months of recovery, Young began rehearsing again and now he is performing on stage in a production of Deer Camp at the New Century Theater in Minneapolis, the same venue where A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol will be playing starting at the end of November.

Young says it feels good to be back on stage and he is particularly excited for his returning role in A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol. Having worked with most of the same actors on all five of the Don’t Hug Me shows for over eleven years collectively, the cast is really better described as a family. The moment they heard about Young’s accident, two of his fellow cast members gave up their roles in Don’t Hug Me We’re Married in order to be at the hospital. The same fears that they had acted out on stage for years were now their reality. When I asked how his recent experience has shaped how he views the show, Young reflected, “it’s actually more how the other characters would respond to all this … I can hardly think about [Clara] saying those lines ‘Are you gonna come back?’ and not have a whole different appreciation for that.”

Although this will be its ninth run in Minnesota, this year’s rendition of A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol is sure to be unique. As Young explains it, “even in a play that you’ve done a gazillion times, each night that you do it you can find something that you didn’t have the night before or may never have again.” And the return of a beloved friend and admired actor to his theatrical family will certainly make for an unforgettable show. Be sure not to miss it, opening November 27 at the New Century Theater in Minneapolis.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.