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Leaving a Beautiful Corpse

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The Waiting Room

Stage Left Theatre

By Carol Burbank

Once a shameful secret, cancer in the 20th century has become a common language, a shadow haunting the healthy as well as the sick. It's the subject of countless movies of the week, the cash cow of pharmaceutical companies, a force of nature. Still a mysterious disease despite many studies, it's produced a blame game that tars the victims and lets God or chance off the hook. Cancer, we're told, comes from our genes, our polluted environment, the things we eat or don't eat, our lifestyles and emotional imbalances.

With a flood of victims and scientists looking for a cure, cancer has come out of its closet with a vengeance. TV dramas, docudramas, and melodramas have taught us all how to behave (nobly) if it ever touches us or our families. Most TV and theater about cancer focuses voyeuristically on the feelings surrounding survival and loss, offering only weepy catharsis. Such family dramas give us a chance to grieve or cheer but usually urge us to contain any rage or rebellion. Lisa Loomer's 1994 play, on the other hand, helps direct our rage--in particular toward capitalist medical approaches more focused on getting rich off toxic treatments than attacking the sources of the problem.

Though Loomer drives this point home with humor and imagination, it's impossible to describe The Waiting Room as a cheerful play. There are just too many assaults on our sentimentality and our fantasies that the medical world has our best interests at heart. And Loomer's critique applies as much to medical care for men as for women: by the end of this ironic romp through a cultural minefield even the oppressors seem like victims of their own conspiracy. But as a feminist writer well versed in the history of women's self-destructive search for perfection, Loomer points out a related cancer: the quest for beauty is itself a killer, starting with the spirit and finishing with the body.

Using detailed, historically accurate cultural critiques of different countries and centuries, Loomer places three women whose health has been destroyed by the social conventions of their time in the same 20th-century waiting room. Taking the audience into specific scenes from the past, she also blurs the characters' lives and families together in the present, letting the irony of their situations saturate the play with a wry humor and layering our understanding of breast cancer with information about earlier socially induced diseases.

The three women facing the grim results of their wish for conformity are Forgiveness From Heaven, a desperately submissive 17th-century Chinese woman who's developed gangrene from lifelong foot binding; Victoria, a classic 19th-century hysteric tormented by cures designed to subdue her spirit and intelligence; and the contemporary Wanda, with breast cancer initiated by ruptured silicone implants. (Her cosmetic surgeons never asked about the high rate of cancer in her family, praising her choice to become more "beautiful" without warning her of the risks.) Rounding out the cast are two husbands, the women's doctor, a sympathetic nurse, and various other family members and medical personnel.

The comical differences between the three women quickly foster a sympathetic friendship typical of the chronically ill. The characters commiserate, enthusiastically explaining their reasons for submitting to life-changing toxic treatments. Of course submitting to their cultures' standards of beauty in the first place led inexorably to serious illness. And the play's ultimate irony is that the cures these women contemplate will destroy the "beauty" they made such sacrifices to achieve. Forgiveness From Heaven, cast out by her husband, faces amputation. Victoria is forced to have a hysterectomy. And Wanda faces similar comfortless treatment after her full mastectomy--chemotherapy, with an option for (you guessed it) silicone breast implants.

What makes the play so remarkable is the humanity and intimacy produced by these culturally determined diseases. Loomer's characters make choices based on their unidealized historical circumstances, not on current political ideals. We not only see Wanda's stripped-down despair in her hospital room but her flirtations in a local bar strutting her cosmetically transformed stuff. We peek into the sickroom where Victoria lies in total darkness taking the "rest cure," sneaking books and twitching furiously, caught up in the melodrama of her illness and always available to satisfy her husband's sexual needs. We visit Forgiveness From Heaven's bedroom to witness her and her husband's erotic delight in her unwashed bound feet and overhear her plans to break and bind his new wife's feet, but we also hear the story of her own traumatic foot binding and see her wandering homeless after her husband rejects her festering "golden lotus."

With a wicked feminist sarcasm, Loomer's ahistorical touches establish the surreal universality of patriarchy. Victoria's husband, also a doctor, plays golf with other powerful men in the story: the 20th-century doctor--a good-hearted man with prostate cancer--and his colleagues, a sly bureaucrat promoting a questionably effective but profitable anticancer drug and a naive FDA official. With the exception of the women's doctor, these men are stereotypes, fall guys for the play's feminist message. Loomer is smart enough to make them interesting puppets, though--more than I can say for many of the female stereotypes playwrights perpetuate. Loomer's male clowns are complicated, always tripping on their own hypocrisies and suffering satisfyingly logical, appropriately temporary interruptions of their smug power.

The Waiting Room is a fascinating, playful critique of what many have called "the cancer industry," but it's also more: few playwrights have the narrative skill to combine this many issues, and Loomer pulls it off with only a few scenes that feel like overkill. Stage Left's Chicago premiere is fast paced and spunky, with just enough foolishness to make the painful stories into an entertaining, intense evening. McKinley Carter, Seema Sueko, and Marguerite Hammersley are earnest and even charming as the three women facing death and loss in the name of beauty. Bradley C. Woodard as the women's comical doctor reminded me of Chad Everett's charming Dr. Gannon on the 70s superdoc soap Medical Center but developed into a believably distraught patient himself. And as Brenda, the kind nurse with hidden knowledge, Valerie D. Robinson manages to keep sentimentality to a minimum, giving her performance as much sting as sweetness.

Robin Stanton directs with respect for the playwright's intent, though there are a few too many underlined emotional moments in the story's payoff scenes--as when Wanda decides she wants to have a life worth living, even if it means living with cancer. But generally Stanton maintains a deft touch, guiding her actors to combine clowning, satire, and naturalism, giving the play variety and depth. Stage Left has pulled off a challenging work that's more than the typical tearjerker about death and dying: even at its bleakest, The Waiting Room suggests both collective and individual ways to fight political, cultural, and natural death threats. More than any other terminal-illness play I've seen lately--and that includes a number of AIDS plays, some of them very effective--The Waiting Room combines intelligent criticism with compassion and calls for specific political action.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Waiting Room theater still by David Konczal.

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