Personal Expression of Beauty… through Cancer
I met Suzanne Mernyk, writer of ‘Sympathy in C’ at the Kennedy Center Playwriting Intensive 2017, led by the masterful Gary Garrison, who is nurturing a supportive community of playwrights across the country. Unlike acting, where you can choose to create discernment between your character’s circumstances and your personal life, playwriting is incredibly revealing. As you develop material, everything is crafted from your consciousness, how you perceive the characters you are inventing. There is no hiding. In addition to getting her very personal play picked by the Broadway Bound Festival, Suzanne Mernyk also served as the producer of this production under Equity showcase contract. How cool is that?
At the center of the action is Audrey, the nurse who works on the chemo floor, close to burnout and magnificently played by Denise Collins. She dreads goodbyes, and makes a point of it: there are so many kinds – of goodbyes. Each character has a distinct relationship with the illness and they provoke the audience with their story, sometimes interrupted or elevated by other characters disagreeing or on the same page. Julia the 26-years old miss perfect who eats broccoli is being courted by Josh, who is to die for… (I was sitting among a large group of lady friends of the actor from the AGR community) and Julia eventually shares with him where she is at with her health. Ronald is a retired diplomat who takes his treatment lightly, at the great despair of Audrey:
– It’s foolishness
– What is?
– Watchin’ a smart man act dumb
And Nancy, a beautiful soul without a family who decides—well you will see for yourself, at the theater. The theme of acceptance and surrender keeps lurking, or at least that’s how I perceived it.
Clearly the playwright had a personal experience of the disease that took center stage, and she was able to transcend her judgment and pain in order to create a multifaceted and educating piece for others to grow from. Ms. Mernyk was able to distill these complex characters, sometimes with humor, and yield to her subject without being attached to how it should be perceived. We seem to be experiencing cancer from all angles throughout the piece, and I wasn’t the only member of the full house to wipe a tear or two (Yes: no, do not wear heavy make up at the theater). When I coach artists and teach healing arts, a sort of passion day job, the question “how do you come up with your own personal expression of beauty” comes up. What an accomplishment to crystalize a powerful intimate experience that is cancer into such a generous piece for the theater.
Ms. Mernyk is also a classical musician and the play is reminiscent of a ballet or symphony, as the title elegantly suggests. A cello and viola surround the players sitting on stools arranged in an arc, and the respective players Madeline Domico and Sylvie Mae Baldwin came up with their own compositions for the performance.
A pinnacle moment in the play, and definitely uncomfortable to watch is Nancy having an allergic reaction to her chemo. Her character also has a breakthrough when she laments at her condition, and how absurd it is to think that [according to some alternative healing techniques] it could be her “beliefs” that created her cancer, and that she would be to blame for her misfortune. In the work I do with ThetaHealing®, we specifically look for patterns of resentment when working with cancer patients. Yes we teach that our subconscious beliefs directly affect our health, but also when you have an illness we take on the belief patterns of that disease. So it is more the other way around: when the illness affects our thoughts and therefore weakens every system of our body. Mental health is key – in life, not only when dealing with life threatening conditions.
One of the interesting discoveries in the play is the character of Abdul, powerfully interpreted by Charles J. Ouda. A bit of a lunatic and outcast to society, he condemns the injustice of foreign policy. He is not cancer-centric (apart from his mom dying from cancer), or rather he is so much more than that. Perhaps with his alluding to terrorism, he draws the parallel with chemotherapy randomly destroying the excess cells. He is mysterious and as an audience member I had to keep wondering what was the connection to the rest of the story.
The wonderful cast brought to life this painful story with gusto, before a captive audience, at a medium size theater I didn’t know existed on the second floor of the 14th Street Y. An exquisite and thought provoking evening at the theater! Director Terry Hanson brought into focus the piece with great rhythm, I can imagine the play might be eclectic on the page, and it comes across on the stage with great clarity and humanity. Sympathy in C is a unique theatrical experience with poetic and musical overtones, triggering the audience at their core as they are being introduced to the reality of living with a cancer diagnosis, and the uncertain promise of chemotherapy treatment.
Cello played by Madeline Docimo
Josh played by Russel E. Kohlmann
Julia played by Tygar Hicks
Nancy played by Rachel Marcus
Audrey played by Denise Collins
Ronald played by Peter Levine
Abdul played by Charles J. Ouda
Viola played by Sylvie Mae Baldwin