The opposite of a feel-good weepie about overcoming illness and adversity, Gardner’s drum-tight script gives us the experience of sickness pitched to true life, with hope and despair in equal measure.
As in Greek tragedy, Gardner keeps the life-changing moments of impact offstage. The audience sees only the anxiety awaiting a diagnosis or a procedure and its aftermath.
In the waiting room of a New York City clinic—rendered with appropriate sterility by Marsha Ginsberg and punishingly lit by Kate McGee—four patients with skin cancer face losing their flesh in order to stay alive. Their family members deal with the weight of waiting.
One by one, the disparate characters are led into the examination room, shepherded by their doctors: the calm and experienced Denise (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and her somewhat distracted resident, Jonathan (Bartley Booz).
They include Reggie (Alicia Pilgrim), already facing a lifetime of potential maladies at nineteen; Toby (Patrick Vaill), whose laid-back attitude barely masks crippling depression; Liane (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose worsening cancer dovetails with a rapidly crumbling marriage; and Clyde (Peter Gerety, gregarious and charming), a frequent flyer with a sanguine attitude toward life.
Gardner resists the urge to flatten these unique human beings into types or to reach for an artificial universality in the storytelling. She understands that relatability and recognition come through specificity. Although the four patients face similar challenges, they interpret them through a personal worldview, tied to their experiences and sense of self.
Reggie wonders to her sister Anna (a sensational Gabby Beans) how her surgical scars will further other her: She’s already gay and pretentious, and now she’ll be deformed. Liane confesses to her husband Jordan (Glenn Fitzgerald) that she fears their friends don’t like her enough to sympathize with her situation.
The micro-conversations that occur in the waiting room also dig into the complications of personal and familial relationships. Again, the situation provides Gardner with a checklist of well-trodden scenarios to easily rehash, but she avoids the easy emotionality inherent in the setting. Reggie’s relationship to Anna, a high-achieving Wall Street analyst, remains tense, even though it’s clear the sisters love each other.
Toby is also susceptible to the thrall of his New Age mother, Paula (Laura Esterman), who believes that physical ailments can be cured through the power of positive thinking. Gardner’s writing and Esterman’s remarkably subtle performance wrest a potentially buffoonish character from the realm of caricature, and you can almost understand why Toby would want to heal his melanoma with Reiki and good energy.
The interactions of Liane and Jordan offer the greatest potential for melodrama, but again, Gardener gives us something wrenchingly real. Rarely has the effect of a disease on the state of a marriage been portrayed with such a wrenching lack of sentimentality, and rarely has an actor been so willing to seem unlikeable as Fitzgerald.
McDonnell shows us a woman whose former sense of self is stripped away post-diagnosis, and who will almost certainly struggle to regain her equilibrium in the wake of medical intervention.
Knud Adams directs with a laser focus on the grand impact of minutiae—for a play that deals with a growing alienation of one’s body, he knows to home in on changes in physicality and connection among the characters. In a particularly painful moment, Liane reaches for Jordan in search of comfort, even as she knows she won’t find any there.
Gardner’s title holds multiple meanings. Cancer, of course, is a physical revolution, a proliferation of cells that rebel against the body’s healthy organisms. Skin cancer in particular carries the possibility of disfiguration, of losing the most basic sense of identity.
But dealing with disease is also a revolt against the expected order of life—it allows the sufferer, and their support system, to be honest and forthright in surprising ways. Gardner captures this all in a profoundly moving Off-Broadway debut.
Photos: Ahron R. Foster © 2022