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Set Sail with Pirates of the Chemotherapy

Updated: Feb 23, 2019

Review by John Porter, 88.9 WCVE PBS

"PIRATES OF THE CHEMOTHERAPY should not be missed; it has been a highlight of the theatre season."

Buckets of water were dropping all over Richmond. Not just a little light rain that raises the steam factor around town, but the kind of blinding torrential downpour that obliterates your vision and makes it impossible to see the road inches in front of you. The wife has an umbrella, but that can’t outwit this airborne flood, it just shifts, comes in sideways and blinds us from the front.

That’s how we inched our way to Chamberlayne Actors Theatre in order to catch an independent production of PIRATES OF THE CHEMOTHERAPY. By the time we got to the lobby it looked like we had been dunked in the ocean with all of our clothes on and they proceeded to stick to our skin. It was not a night conducive to good humor, but a promise to attend is a promise that cannot be broken.

Thank God for promises, for if I had missed PIRATES OF THE CHEMOTHERAPY (hereafter referred to as POTC) I would have missed out on great performances and an uplifting comedy about one of the most completely unfunny subjects on earth – cancer. Count yourself lucky if your life has never been touched by this dark scourge. I lost my father to lung and brain cancer about eight months ago and the wounds are still fresh.

There have been so many other friends and family that have left us too soon, and despite all of the accolades I had heard from attendees of POTC, I was still skeptical. How could a show featuring several women dealing with recovering from breast cancer have entertainment value? And those of you who know me, know I hate didactic theatre. I feel like I have been pounded over the head with a message and that makes me shut down. See, to me didactic theatre only reaches the people who already believe in the message being preached. You want converts; go after the people that need changing.

That is exactly what playwright Paul Schutte has done. He has created a Trojan Horse that comes into your life and teaches us that camaraderie and a lot of joie de vivre can triumph even if the patient’s battle end badly. Normally I would go on a little congratulatory rant since Schutte is a Virginia playwright and I love to promote homegrown talent. But the truth is, this script could have come from anywhere or go anywhere. It has far-reaching implications and despite the couple of very minor quibbles I have with the story arc, I hope that more productions of POTCwill be mounted and seen across the country.

Let’s talk performances. The six women are broadly drawn from society – an over-organized mom, an uninhibited live to the fullest gal, a new age yoga instructor, an insulated practical minded business owner, a woman rejected by her philandering husband, and the hunter gatherer who brings them all together.

I personally know five of the six actresses involved with the production, and while I have enjoyed their work individually in the past, collectively they reached new heights and I was blown away by their performances.

Terry Menefee Gau is Judith the organizer. Her life is running errands and taking care of her family and is all written down in a nice neat little book. Nothing can penetrate her shell, until a mammogram reveals a lump which is quickly diagnosed, removed, and who starts on a course of chemo. The opening scenes with Gau, beautifully capture and crystalize her life and then subject her to the surreal circus her life becomes due to the diagnoses of cancer.

The rest of the play is a series of support meetings where we get to know the women, see through their defenses, laugh with their triumphs, cry at their setbacks, and celebrate each of their unique lives that have this one focal point in common.

Stacie Rearden Hall is Winnie, the store-owner recovering cocaine addict, and creator of the Pirates. It is she that realizes that they must somehow embrace what has been done to the group and to use it to fight back. Pirates live by their own rules outside of society, so should they. By using the “Pirate code” they are able to bond together like never before and to go out of their way to truly help each other. Hall really stretches here and turns in a truly wonderful performance.

Kathy Northrup Parker is great as Doris, the over the top, seize life gal who is masking great pain. If you are ever lucky enough to catch Parker in anything, go. If you are lucky enough to see her in this show, you are blessed. Parker has the rare ability to command your attention by doing nothing; her natural charisma extends to every role she plays. Here, she takes over her scenes without upstaging her fellow pirates – no mean feat. Thanks to her performance, I will never be able to hear the theme to Laverne and Shirley with a straight face again.

Marilyn Schappacher is the only actress I didn’t know prior to the show and she holds her own as the new age Pirate Peace. Peace seeks harmony in all her surroundings and her bizarre non-sequiters provide much of the humor. A young actress, she shows much promise for the future.

Kellita Wooten’s Karen shows the most growth through the arc of the play. She goes from downtrodden housewife who is chewed up by her philandering abusive husband, to confident pirate able to take on anything life can throw at her. Her soft voice may lose a few lines, but her body language and acting style draws you into her vulnerability with ease.

H. Lynn Smith is the one who brings them all together and who tries to protect the group. In the jungle she would be a lioness watching over her pack. It isn’t until some of the pack starts fighting against situations with the outside world that she pulls away from her more controlling behavior and the group really becomes a group, solid in its approach to life.

Director Becki Jones has a good eye for the material and has done well letting the actresses follow their instincts. It is very difficult to direct comedy, timing is delicate, and the six actresses have to know how to protect each other and not step on lines while making it all seem natural. Jones has let them loose while developing this ensemble into a beautiful cohesive unit.

I only wish that I had seen the play earlier in its run so that these words might have encouraged more people to go see it. PIRATES OF THE CHEMOTHERAPY should not be missed; it has been a highlight of the theatre season. It is my hope that another production will be mounted and that even more people will find their way to see it.

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