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Arts on the Green Sees Pink

Breast in Show at the Arts Barn

The cast of “Breast in Show” at the Arts Barn: Chris Rudy, Jennie Lutz, Gracie Jones, Darren McDonnell, Ayanna Hardy and Megan Westman. Photo by Phil Fabrizio.

By Sharon Allen Gilder

If the adage “Laughter is the best medicine” has merit, then everyone could use a dose of “Breast in Show.” The professional live stage musical opened Sept. 12 and runs through Sept. 27 at the Arts Barn in Kentlands as part of the newly formed Arts on the Green program that embraces the performing and visual arts at the Arts Barn and Kentlands Mansion.

At first glance, there may appear to be a typographical error in the show’s clever name, but breast cancer is what it’s all about. Skeptics might view the title as irreverent, especially with its tag line, “the show that brings humor to the tumor.” However, there’s nothing cavalier about the intent or the message. Executive Producer Eileen Mitchard explained that she believes musical theatre can affect people in a way that no other medium can. She said she wants to encourage a new movement through “Breast in Show,” similar to the impact “Rent” has had on the A.I.D.S. movement, by saying, “We can, we must, and we will eradicate breast cancer in our lifetime.”

The topic of breast cancer may be the pink elephant in the room, but the sobering statistics are worthy of discussion and action. The Washington metropolitan area has the highest death rate from breast cancer in the nation. As the lights go up on stage, cast members share some global numbers: “Every 69 seconds somewhere on this planet, someone dies from breast cancer” and “Eighty-five percent of breast cancers occur in women with no family history of the disease.”

Writer Lisa Hayes, along with Mitchard and several other professionals in the theatre world, comprise the collaborative team that made the production come to life under the direction of Kathryn Chase Bryer. Joan Cushing composed the music and lyrics for the 90-minute musical that is based on true stories vetted by the creators over a two-year period from patients, family members and medical personnel. The production team consists of music director, Deborah Jacobson; choreographer, Illona Kessell; scenic designer, A.J. Guban; costume designer, Frank Labovitz; lighting designer, Zachary Gilbert; sound designer, Christopher Baine; and tour manager, Daniel Mori.

Hayes’ script, Cushing’s musical compositions, and the actors’ panache cleverly engage the audience’s empathy as poignancy skillfully melds with comedy. The overture’s lively and melancholy mix, performed by Deborah Jacobson on keyboards and Dana Gardner on reeds, sets the tone for what’s to come.

The show’s ChemoCafé, where even the I.V. stands are part of the choreography, is the setting where the diagnosis of cancer forms kinships among four patients and one nurse. The group evolves into a serendipitous community where, said Mitchard, “You will laugh, you will cry … sometimes you will do both at the exact same moment. But you will leave with a very hopeful outlook.”

Six actors, four women and two men, seamlessly playing multiple roles, bring to life the enormous impact a cancer diagnosis delivers to the patients and their families. The cast, comprised of Ayanna Hardy, Gracie Jones, Jennie Lutz, Darren McDonnell, Chris Rudy and Megan Westman, give beautiful voices to the wide spectrum of emotions, decisions and fall-out from an initial diagnosis through treatment.

Laura Andruski, theatre program coordinator at the Arts Barn, attended the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival where “Breast in Show” won several awards including “Most Heartfelt Performance by an Ensemble” and “Scene-Stealer” for Gracie Jones’ performance as Chelsea. Andruski said she was totally blown away by the production. “It’s not only entertaining but moves you and enlightens you. When we can laugh at the tragic moments in our lives, it gives us some measure of power over them. Positive thoughts can lead to positive well-being.”

Jones’ favorite song in the show is the anthem, “Time.” The compelling composition is a vigorous lament by the ensemble for “One more season, one more graduation, one more birthday, beach vacation, anniversary, etc.” —the long list of ‘precious hours’ patients with cancer hope to have. Jones said, “I’ve never played a role where someone has a timeline. ‘Time’ ties it all together and bridges every gap whether you have cancer or someone you know does. I hope people better understand after witnessing the play what it’s like to go through this for the patient and that they walk out more educated and aware about the disease, the effect of the disease, and what’s appropriate around a cancer patient.”

Levity in the lyrics sung by the characters undergoing treatment—such as, “If the cancer doesn’t kill you, chemotherapy will”; “There’s nothing more therapeutic than getting it off of our chests”; “Let down your hair if you’ve got any there”; and “With a sprinkling of humor for shrinking the tumor”—give a sense of empowerment over the disease as the characters work through the intensity of coping and healing with humor as part of their protocol. The character Nurse Desiree said, “We give each other courage.”

Andruski focused on a moment in the play when the husband of a patient is speaking to a therapist. “When he is expressing his feelings, it’s one of the most powerful monologues I’ve heard on stage.” A very witty scene finds a patient singing a love song to her oncologist.

Chris Rudy plays Pete, a male diagnosed with breast cancer. “There is a lack of awareness that men can get the disease. Pete is alien to the whole process and brings his own unique perspective,” said Rudy. He added, “Some breast cancer hand-outs alienate men, and it makes them feel they aren’t part of the cause. It would be more productive to work together on all cancers and not as separate causes.”

Get ready to be moved by the tenacity of the characters. They proudly proclaim they are not survivors but warriors. Andruski said, “The message is so powerful, uplifting and triumphant that it’s not to be missed. The show makes you think and tugs at your heartstrings. It’s not a downer of an evening. No one should be put off because of the subject matter. With education and awareness comes action. That’s why it’s so exciting to bring a theatrical production here that brings awareness and spurs action. Eileen fights to bring this work to the public with the hope to have it in New York off-Broadway. It’s great to think the Arts Barn is part of that possible journey.”

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