Standing “O”-vation

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In Stage West’s current dark comedy, friendship blooms in a cancer ward. Fort Worth Weekly

Fort Worth Weekly | By Jackie Hoerrman-Elliott - March 21, 2018

Some women are better potty mouths than others. In Stage West’s latest, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center of New York City (pause for breath), two foul-mouthed feministas are delivering an arresting performance as a mother-and-daughter duo whose relationship is falling apart faster than cancer can spread. 

In a Pepto-Bismol pink hospital room, Karla (Janielle Kastner) is writing and rehearsing comedy bits about vibrators at the bedside of her cancer-stricken mother, Marcie (Shannon J. McGrann). When a depressed, recently divorced Don (Thomas Ward) enters the same hospital room — where his mother (Judy Keith) is also a patient — his boo-hooing turns into ballistic anger as he confronts Karla from the other side of the privacy curtain. Never deterred, Karla brings her own flavor of tartness to the confrontation until, out of nowhere, a friendship is formed as seen only in absurdist acts of comedy like this one. Laughter is closely followed by tears, which are closely followed by deeply personal character revelations, daddy issues, and a jaw-dropping orgasm.

By far the most profound performance came from Kastner, whose embodiment of a twentysomething struggling comedian with deep emotional scars became the agar through which all the other cast members could proliferate. McGrann’s character development snowballed the most, building as she rolled through unabashedly offensive jokes and painful jabs. She never left the bed she was almost straight-jacketed by, but McGrann’s terrorizing of the other characters made her a presence onstage. At times, Ward burst forth with a tirade of tears that was a tad too subdued to be believable, but he caused everyone’s blood pressure to spike when he roared every common curse word at the top of his lungs in a lavatory off right. Keith had very few lines, but her embodiment of a dying mother took an ambient approach to establishing a flat character with some slightly rounded edges. No one character onstage was especially drastic in terms of dynamicism, but every actor demonstrated a trace of depth that dangled in front of interested onlookers. 

The set design oozed with femininity in a most entertaining way. Much like any Susan G. Komen promotional material, the blushing backdrop seemed to glow with hopefulness despite the most haunting reminders of mortality wafting around between silver-backed Mylar balloons and sympathy-induced flower arrangements. The door to the hospital room at stage left opened to cheap armchairs, a monitor, and a hospital bed mirroring a similar arrangement on the other side of a soft green panel curtain. A handicap-accessible bathroom was built into the wings off stage-right with a translucent wall that, when struck by a silhouette and a light, produced a suggestive sex scene Fort Worth won’t soon forget. Up center-stage, a scene from New York City was projected onto a curtain, glittering at night, adding soft depth in daylight, and acting as a centering reminder of the world outside this oncological microcosm. Set designer Jocelyn Girigorie’s vision for this stage was not overly ambitious but still somehow memorable. Then again, when aren’t pink walls memorable? Sound design by Marco Salinas was well-timed and well-produced, especially the television dialogue resonating with some familiar local voices.

Halley Feiffer is a promising playwright with a knack for irritating already raw feelings between characters. Unlike a lot of her contemporaries, she doesn’t always write the unexpected ending, which has become the new norm rather than the exception onstage. (Then again, theater has always had to fight harder than film to win the battle of novelty and to keep the interest of postmodern audiences.) Without pulling any shocking punches, Feiffer writes her characters into the right scenarios they need to be able to cope with their realities. Of course, if we don’t have to grapple with a surprise outcome, we’re less likely to keep talking about the implications of the play as a piece of literature after the show ends. Then again, waving the shock-and-awe card too many times comes with consequences in the dramatic arts. Kastner’s handling of Feiffer’s sex scene sent just the right number of jolts. 

Fans of Eve Ensler’s work won’t want to miss Funny Thing, which takes a rare and enriching theatrical gaze at the lives of mothers through the eyes of their children. The bubblegum nightmare of a set is humble in terms of design, and, like the title, the spoken dialogue takes some lengthy liberties, but both make for an unforgettable resolution.

Support arts coverage in Fort Worth - read the review at the Fort Worth Weekly