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Theater Review: “Pirates of the Chemotherapy”

Updated: Feb 23, 2019

Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for

"Schutte’s two-act sturdy play is so eloquent and afoot with transparent emotion that his piece dramatizes breast cancer awareness in simple, many times comedic, but profound moments on the healing powers of human interaction."

Cancer support group is in session, and it consists of six diverse women facing the malignancy of prying, and sometimes terminal, breast cancer in Paul Schutte’s Pirates of the Chemotherapy. Being staged at the Chamberlayne Actors Theatre, all proceeds from the shows benefit the VCU Massey Cancer Center. For a play that displays astute social criticism around the issues buffeting breast cancer prevention—lack of early detection, doctors’ misdiagnoses, and the unscrupulousness of insurance companies—this cause brings to my recently skeptical mind that theater can, indeed, be socially beneficial.

Let’s commence with the synopsis of this Audience Choice Award winner for Best Play at the Smithfield Little Theater One Act Festival: six breast cancer patients meet in a support group and by the end of Act I Karen (Kellita A. Wooten)—fed up with her self-pity and empowered by female camaraderie—persuades her fellows to impersonate pirates. Already we are in the territory of profound dramatic literature—Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Wit about an austere, female English professor dying from ovarian cancer—as well as a play whose title is in homage to a multi-billion dollar Hollywood film—Disney’s The Pirates of the Caribbean, a fantasy adventure about Johnny Depp starring as a swaggering, lawless pirate struggling with severe, metastasized moral ambiguity.

Impersonating pirates is Schutte’s metaphor for female indomitability. It’s charming, yet sometimes feels extraneous when the cast is in pirate garb for most of Act II, but the conceit rarely loses poetic cogency as a coping mechanism for dealing with cancer. Schutte’s two-act sturdy play is so eloquent and afoot with transparent emotion that his piece dramatizes breast cancer awareness in simple, many times comedic, but profound moments on the healing powers of human interaction.

Under the healthy direction of Becki Jones, who—whether through collaboration with the playwright or inventive irreverence of the script—sets the play in a church parlor in Richmond, Virginia keeping Schutte’s dramatic comedy close to home as well as our hearts. In a time when 1 out of 8 women will develop invasive, malignant breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, Jones’ interpretation is a potent, humorous but harrowing antidote to the physical, but often emotional, abrasions that accompany cancer and chemotherapy.

Her cast is never antiseptic, but very alive with clearly defined personalities and histories.

Judith (Terry Menefee Gau) is a clean-cut, obsessively organized mom of two recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Lighting designer Alan Armstrong’s psychodrama lighting in the play’s prologue intensifies the feeling that Judith’s life is no longer the soccer mom, suburban stay-at-home wife dream come true anymore. Winnie (Stacie Rearden Hall) is a punk with an addiction to sex, drugs and alcohol. Peace (Marilyn Schappacher) is an Indie, New-Age eco-friendly young lady with an aversion to men equal to her fondness of the mineral mica. Nancy (H. Lynn Smith) leads the support group but has a secret of her own that may tear the group apart, and Karen (Kellita A. Wooten) is a reticent, young woman dealing with husband abandonment. All five actors embody the characters with colorful, distinct individuations.

Standout Doris (Kathy Northrop Parker) comes straight from Boca Raton, Florida with a pair of DD breasts she’s named “Schlemiel” and “Schlamazel”, and she’s absolutely riotous with her sassy quips, raunchy disposition and optimistic outlook on cancer. Sporting mostly sequence outfits (director Becki Jones is also costume designer) and an auburn wig of big hair, you always want to hear what meshuggeneh Doris has to say.

The play sort of ends like an infomercial for early cancer detection, and it’s palpable that Schutte’s constructed additions to an earlier, original draft. More careful integration and editing may be needed, but the show’s spirit isn’t diluted: we laugh, we cry, we empathize with those we know who have battled cancer. This cast of six isn’t just actors—pirates, to be correct—but representatives of diverse people who convince us that the curative powers of laughter and fortitude shouldn’t be discounted.

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