TBT show brings dignity, grace to sensitive subject

Thunder Bay Theatre has taken a risk by opting to do a show about the ravages of cancer on both a person’s body and psyche. But by doing “W;T” the theatre also touches on a core of human experience, for who among us has not been impacted by this dreaded disease in one way or another?

The play itself is no small slouch it won a Pulitzer for its creator, Margaret Edson. Here on the TBT stage, “W;T” gives us veteran actress Terry Carlson in what just may be her best performance ever. She fully becomes Vivian Bearing, a rigid, highly educated professor of 16th century English poetry diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.

As such, Carlson’s Vivian is not accustomed to giving or accepting human kindnesses. She has no close friends or family to speak of, and her students have viewed her teaching style as more boot camp than poetry class. Upon her diagnosis, she encounters the university research hospital machine, wherein much of the staff seems to view her more as a research project rather than a fellow human being. Even so, by the time Vivian reaches her journey’s end, she has found at least some small measure of grace and redemption.

In performing in “W;T” Carlson has teamed up with Carol Rundell, her long-time friend and esteemed fellow actress. The emotionally penetrating play has deep personal meaning for Rundell, whose chosen profession is to administer nursing care to cancer patients at Alpena Regional Medical Center’s Cancer Center.

Though Rundell started off with a smaller role in the play (as E.M. Ashford, also a professor of English poetry) and provided some directional advice to TBT Artistic Director J.R. Rodriguez, he could see how much she knew both about theatre and about cancer patients/hospitals. Consequently, Rodriguez stepped back and named her the director of “W;T.”

It was a wise decision for in so doing, Rundell nailed many of the hospital-like details, including the first glimpse the audience gets of Vivian, who walks onto stage dressed in a hospital gown, a ballcap to hide her hair loss and cozy socks to keep her feet warm, all while towing her portable IV line beside her. Vivian, with amused candor, is there to discuss with the audience the workings of the play that give her less than two hours to relate what happens to her.

Thank goodness the staff at our local, community hospital treats patients with more compassion than the staff of the medical facility where Vivian finds herself seeking care. Randy Bouchard handily plays Dr. Kelekian, who gives her the initial diagnosis. While he does exhibit some occasional compassion, the same cannot be said of Dr. Posner, an internist and fellow at the hospital who would much rather be doing clinical research on cancer than caring for actual patients.

As irony would have it, Dr. Posner convincingly portrayed as lacking in any beside manner by Kevin Ray Johnson was a former student of Vivian’s. Now, very reluctantly, Dr. Posner is there to give her a pelvic exam and to note her deteriorating symptoms on a chart.

Other health care workers float in and out of Vivian’s room (played by LeShawn Bell, Mackenzie Fountain, Travis Atkinson and Molly Stricker), but they too exhibit no real concern for the patient. The sole staff member with a genuine heart is her primary care nurse, Susie Monahan. Hannah Matzke seems perfectly cast as this giver of small kindnesses that make a difference. It is Nurse Susie who is there to walk Vivian through her resuscitation options, to affectionately call her sweetheart and to share a soothing popcycle.

As the play progresses, Vivian becomes more aware that neither science nor her formidable intellect can help her. Her stoicism, laced with dry humor, has been so persuasive throughout the course of the terse hour and 40 minutes of the play, that when Vivian surrenders and howls in pain at the end, it is difficult not to acutely feel her agony.

I can’t say “W;T” was an easy show to watch. Like most people I know, I have lost both friends and family to cancer, and reliving a little of those very personal, very real experiences was difficult. But the show brings a measure of dignity and grace to this seemingly universal subject, making it impossible to leave the theatre without feeling that you’ve seen something of true substance performed with honesty and by noteworthy talent.