TBT tackles tough subject with award-winning drama

As schedules go, performers at Thunder Bay Theatre often find themselves with only a short window of time in which to prepare for roles.

Not so Terry Carlson. A highly regarded local actress, Carlson has spent the last nine months prepping to play Vivian in the Pulitzer winning drama, “W;T” by Margaret Edson. The show, which tackles the tough subject of ovarian cancer, opens Thursday for a two-week run.

“It is a very beautifully written piece, but it’s not a show where you can just memorize your lines and go on stage,” she said. “There was a lot of mental and physical preparation involved.”

Once a week for several months, Carlson accompanied a close friend to her chemotherapy treatments. While doing so, she had the opportunity not only observe her surroundings but also to speak with other cancer patients and health care professionals.

“It enlightened me a great deal,” she said.

Carlson sees “W;T” as the story of Vivian’s grace and redemption: “She was a professor of 17th century poetry. She was a demanding, uncompromising professor. That’s how she lived her life.”

Through Vivian’s ovarian cancer diagnosis and ensuing journey, Carlson said her character comes to realize her own need for comfort and grace attributes she had rigidly withheld from her students. As the play progresses, Vivian becomes defined by the flow of grace in and out of her life.

Given her character’s career in academia and its importance in the play, Carlson also delved into 17th century poetry as part of her preparation work. The punctuation mark found in the play’s title, she said, is a nod to a form of poetry from that time period.

TBT Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez originally brought “W;T” to Carlson’s attention two years ago. After reading through the script, she knew she wanted to perform it on stage despite the risk of potentially off-putting subject matter. Rodriguez, in turn, brought her request to do the show before the TBT board of directors.

“There are 13 people on the board of Thunder Bay Theatre,” Rodriguez said. “On the surface, they were willing to take a chance on this show because this actress, who is very highly thought of, asked for this show. She has never asked us for anything before.”

Carlson is not the only one with a true passion for the play. Her good friend and fellow long-time performer, Carol Rundell, expresses an equal amount of emotional intensity when it comes to “W;T.” Because she makes her living as a nurse at the ARMC Cancer Center, she wanted to be involved in the play from start and appears on stage as the character of E.M. Ashford, Vivian’s academic mentor.

Ultimately, however, Rundell also was handed the directing reigns.

“I took a step back,” said Rodriguez, who started out as director. “Not only because of Carol’s experience in the field, but because of her passion for the subject. When someone longs to get something correct out of respect for a major group of society, then I wanted it to be Carol’s show. She and Terry are best friends anyhow. It works out perfectly.”

Like Carlson, Rundell considers the piece to be extremely well-written.

“I was skeptical at first,” she said. “I read and re-read the play and couldn’t quite initially see it on stage, but I found that it’s very well-written.”

Her experience also helps immeasurably.

“I’ve pretty much dealt with cancer my entire life since the age of 13,” said Rundell, who waited for the Cancer Center to be built in Alpena and then immediately sought a job there. “I can relate to cancer patients as a professional and as a caregiver. My mom still has cancer and my mother-in-law died from ovarian cancer. I knew from each perspective how it should be.”

Rundell is pleased with her cast for “W;T” which includes Randy Bouchard as Dr. Kelekian, Vivian’s physician; Kevin Ray Johnson as Dr. Posner, a fellow of Dr. Kelekian; and Hannah Matke as Vivian’s primary care nurse. Also appearing in the show are LeShawn Bell, Travis Atkinson, Molly McGuire and Mackenzie Fountain as lab technicians, students and the code team. Five-year-old Malley McGuire plays Vivian as a child and Rodriguez plays Vivian’s father.

All three Carlson, Rundell and Rodriguez are hoping the community turns out in full force to experience this dramatic work of art that deals with ovarian cancer with dignity and grace. They will be displaying photographic images of local people who have been touched by cancer in the TBT lobby as a means of putting a face on the disease.

They also will be conducting a fundraiser during the run of the show, with proceeds going to a pap smear fund established at ARMC for women unable to afford such tests.

“Of all the things I’ve produced here in the last three years, including ‘Cats,’ this is the show I am the most proud of,” Rodriguez said.