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The women in Her2 are played with piquancy by a seasoned ensemble.

Cylla von Tiedeamnn

3 out of 4 stars

Title
HER2
Written by
Maja Ardal
Directed by
Kim Blackwell
Actors
Olunike Adeliyi, Diane D'Aquila, Monica Dottor
Venue
Buddies in Bad Times
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, February 01, 2015

Almost 20 years ago, Maja Ardal directed a wonderful production of Two Weeks With the Queen, a rowdy-yet-poignant comedy about an Australian kid seeking a cure for his cancer-stricken brother. That show, co-produced by Young People's Theatre and Alberta Theatre Projects, had a special meaning for me: I saw it with my two young sons, one of whom was just in remission after being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and we all thought it was terrific. I've always wanted to thank Ardal personally for staging it.

Fast forward to 2015 and now we have Ardal, also a playwright and actress, using her own experience with uterine cancer as a springboard for an ambitious play about women dealing with the disease. And just like me all those years ago, I suspect there will be audience members who'll want to express their gratitude to her for writing such a wise, funny and thoughtful piece about such a difficult subject.

In HER2, receiving its premiere from Nightwood Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times, Ardal gives us cancer as a great leveller. It doesn't matter if you're a professor of anthropology or a cashier at Walmart, you can still end up plugged into that inevitable intravenous drip full of brutal chemicals, trying to battle the rebellious cells laying siege to your body.

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The prof and the cashier (played, respectively – and beautifully – by Chick Reid and Maria Vacratsis) are just two of seven disparate women thrown together as group participants in a clinical drug trial. The others are a widowed dairy farmer (Kyra Harper), a Korean herbalist (Brenda Kamino), an actress (Monica Dottor), a housewife (Diane D'Aquila) and a teenage waitress (Olunike Adeliyi).

All seven have been diagnosed as having HER2-positive, an especially aggressive form of breast cancer, and have signed on for a new drug being tested by Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk). They take the drug together daily, in what the prof, Naomi, refers to drily as a "chemo klatch." Not unpredictably, despite their differences they begin to open up to one another and bond – partly thanks to a literally "touchy feely" ritual. The farmer, Frances, has the only visible tumour, on her neck, so each day the others line up to palpate it and see if it has changed in size.

Pearce stays aloof from the group, coldly referring to the women by their conditions (Daphne, the housewife, is "Metastasized Bone"). But her young assistant, Kate (a charmingly brash Bahareh Yaraghi), witnesses the bonding and, much to the doctor's annoyance, begins to theorize on the healing powers of community.

Structurally, HER2 holds few surprises. The two questions driving the plot are whether the drug will work and whether one or more of the women will be dropped from the trial because their bodies aren't responding to the treatment. The latter dread, to be "discontinued," hangs over their collective heads, since it cuts the one thin thread of hope that they still cling to.

The play's strength is in its details. Ardal's women are vibrant creations that defy easy categorization and they're played here with piquancy by a seasoned ensemble under Kim Blackwell's assured direction. Vacratsis's gleefully crass Gloria, all bonhomie and bad puns, keeps everyone's spirits up even as she privately wrestles with her oldest daughter's unwanted pregnancy. Dottor's actress Charlene, seemingly shallow and vain (she's the only woman wearing a wig to hide her hair loss), turns out to be a touchingly devoted mother. Harper's sturdy, religious Frances in fact harbours a death wish. And as the chipper but somewhat clueless Daphne, brightly clipping coupons, D'Aquila proves tragic in her simplicity.

It's Reid who almost steals the show as Naomi, Gloria's intellectual foil. She's a brittle Brit with a craving for booze and cigarettes who seems like she might take more comfort reading Christopher Hitchens's Mortality than engaging in group therapy. Then there's Palk, who is steelier than usual as the imperious doctor – at least until we witness her anxieties over her partly noble, partly self-serving effort to prove her drug's effectiveness.

Blackwell, making her Nightwood debut, pulls out all the stops. Her staging is embellished with interludes of movement, choreographed by Dottor, that include a dance with IV poles. Julia Tribe has designed a two-tiered hospital set in which microscopes are positioned on the upper level like sentinels. Denyse Karn projects magnified cells onto an upstage screen and MRI images over the bodies of the women during their examinations. The coup de théâtre is a phantasmagoric chemotherapy scene, lit by Kimberly Purtell, in which the drug coursing through the IV tube becomes a luminescent green serpent.

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With HER2, Ardal hasn't written a feel-good play – that would be too naive. Call it instead a "feel-better play." It's a story about coping, in which she firmly inverts Jean-Paul Sartre's classic line: Hell isn't other people, she shows us; it's other people who help us to endure hell.

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