Unless you’re a person of a certain age, you wouldn’t know how astounding it is that plays about cancer, such as A Funny Thing…(preceded by W;T’s brutal, head-on depiction of the cancer-killing process) even exist at all.
Back in 1965, when my grandmother Reining (then 65) was diagnosed with the breast cancer that resulted in her double mastectomy, doctors rarely mentioned the word cancer – and especially never to the patient.
Cancer back then was referred to as THE BIG C . Never was its name to be spoken fully out loud. A Big C diagnosis was generally viewed as a Special Delivery Letter from the Grim Reaper himself. And, the prevailing belief was that surgery was a guaranteed death sentence, because, once the body was “opened up and the air hit” the cancer, it would spread throughout the entire body like wildfire.
But here we are, in 2018, where cancer “treatment” has become a multi-billion-dollar enterprise and the onus of the word (shhh…) generally still instills terror. Some fears, like rust, never sleep.
As the play begins, we find Karla (Rebeca Robles), a standup comedian, honing her routine bedside to her medicated and sleeping mother, Marcie (Ellen McQueen). Cycling through her one-note bits about vibrators, rape fantasies, and rape itself (which I never have found to be at all funny but maybe Karla saw a correlation between rape and cancer…how they both have that “funny” way of blindsiding a person and ripping away all of who you think you are and what you thought you knew).
On the other side of the curtain, unknown to Karla, is Don (Douglas Dickerman), the son of his cancerous mother, Geena (Virginia Kirby), who’s been “dying” for the past seven years. As Karla runs full voice through her routine, Don eventually calls her out on her “self-obsessed, hipster, me-generation” attitude, which Karla defends with heightened arrogance and a failure to yield, Ms. Robles’s depiction of which is masterful.
But as time goes on, Karla and Don do what we humans often do in shared, painfully-unrelenting circumstances: they make the effort to get to know each other and to forge a tiny world outside of the painful one which binds them in an inescapable half-nelson.
It turns out that doting son Don, a retired, dot-com millionaire, has been abandoned by his wife and is deeply troubled by the drug addiction of his adopted teenage son. Mr. Dickerman’s subtle depiction of an insecure, broken man is tempered and effective.
When Marcie finally awakens, she reveals herself to be a verbal abuser. Ms. McQueen’s depiction of a doped-up, blaming, faultfinder who’s consumed (literally) by the burden of unresolved emotional pain is alternatingly humorous and heartfelt, and always compelling.
By play’s end, we discover the source of Marcie’s enduring heartache and the reasons for her estrangement from her daughter, all of which has finally been brought out. Truth, too, has a way of spreading (and healing) once it’s been exposed to the air. And there’s something about being in the uncertain circumstances of illness, old age, and time generally running out that has a way of dismantling the death grip of our own egos.
Within each one of us, I believe, is a yearning for a deeper connection to the people who brought us into this life, whether or not those relationships have been easy, difficult, or non-existent. So, by play’s end, when Marcie reaches out to take her daughter’s hand and to say, “You’re a good girl. You’re a funny, funny girl”, there’s nothing cliché or contrived about it. It’s the exact right thing to occur at the exact right time for two people who know that tomorrow may never come and that they better strike while the iron is hot.
A play like A Funny Thing…could very well be interpreted as a cautionary tale, to call us to pay attention to those unexplored, unresolved, pain-filled areas of our lives that we’d rather forget but that will eventually get us to pay attention – one way or another.
Sandra Blazynski is a writer, actress, and lover of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings. Visit her writing website at sandrafranktalks.com, and get ready for her one-woman show, coming in fall 2018.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City
Written by Halley Feiffer
Atlanta Theatre Club @ Pinch n' Ouch
Show Dates: May 4-20, 2018
Director: Jennifer Silver
Cast: Douglas Dickerman, Ellen McQueen, Rebeca Robles, Virginia Kirby