Pit & Balcony Dissects How We Use Humor to Cope with Grief

Regional Premier of ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City’

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 931   By: Robert E Martin

16th June, 2022     0

With a series of performances scheduled from Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25th, as Pit & Balcony Community Theatre prepares to close out their extremely strong  90th season with the regional premiere of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City, in many ways they are saving the best for last.

Obviously, with such a long mouthful of a title, one knows this production has to be different from typical theatrical fare; and to make it even more enticing, this immensely sardonic and highly humorous production that focuse upon characters exploring the deep waters of the human condition was written by none other than Haley Feiffer, whose father is the cartoonist laureate of urban neuroses, Jules Feiffer

The narrative centers upon a foul-mouthed twenty-something comedian and a middle-aged man embroiled in a nasty divorce who are brought together unexpectedly when their cancer-stricken mothers become roommates in the hospital. Together, this unlikely duo attempt to navigate some of life’s biggest challenges, while also managing to make  some of the world’s most inappropriate jokes in the process.

When people battle contradictory currents of response as they smash against the wall of death (or any trauma, for that matter) there exists a raw spot - one of the most difficult to balance upon the tightwire of human emotions - that exists between laughter and pain.  And in this instance, everything that feeds pain: anger, desperation, hopelessness, and the fear that instinctively is summoned when we confront physical disease.

For director Mandee Wunderlee, what distinguishes this play that first debuted back in 2016 and makes it a unique experience for the audience is that it was written and debuted at a time when a major political shift was going on in America. “This is a very feminist piece that focused upon four strong women cast with one man, which makes it sit in my heart a little bit,” she reflects.   “But considering that a big theme in this production is how we deal with grief, I’ve talked a lot with the actors about grief and how different people handle major turning points in their lives, especially when they don’t have any control over those turning points and the human behavior behind it.”

“For instance,” she continues, “if your Mom is dying in the hospital and somebody comes in and challenges your ideology, or the way you approach grieving - that’s the target for me - the process of grief and the hope that is derived at the end; because it’s not only hope that we’re longing for.  Sometimes things don’t work out and people lose their lives, but there’s hope in that as well as hope in moving on past that grief, so these are the main themes I’m working with as a Director - the process of moving on.”

Insofar as people do react to grief in different ways, humor will often enter in some way, shape, or form as an escape or defense mechanism to retain our boundaries.  Within this context, how would Mandee describe the characters in this play in terms of the dynamics that drive them?

“Despite the serious context, there’s lots of comedy involved with this production and it’s a funny play,” she responds. “Humor is a defense mechanism and way of life for the main female character (Karla, performed by Barbie Carr) and for the male character (Don played by Matt Kehoe)  it’s the exact opposite. He does everything by the rule book and even expresses his grief the way society expects of him, whereas the female character doesn’t follow society’s standards or anybody’s rules.”

“I think that’s another important component that makes this such an intriguing piece and will bring especially young women to see the show, because something we’re all craving in our society right now is a voice. And given these two characters different background, childhood, and class status, it’s interesting to see how they each respond to the same situation sitting in a hospital room together watching their mother’s suffer.”

Rounding out the small cast is Tammy Fath, in the role of Don’s Mother, Marcie - who interestingly enough happens to be Wunderlee’s own mother in real life; and Katie MacLean-Peters as Geena. Indeed, when asked if it’s difficult giving direction to her own Mother, Mandee laughs and responds: “She’s very compliant and has a total of four lines and sleeps through the entire show, so it’s quite easy to direct her!”

As for the biggest challenge posed by this production to her as a director, Mandee reveals that it sits pretty close to home.  “I have a very large family and had quite a few people die of cancer, and my Mom was pre-cancerous with the same kind of condition the character she portrays is going through, so this play is very personal for me. My family has dealt with a lot of grief and it can be a challenge finding a way to bring that up and help the actors by sharing my own experiences, while still making the experience of the show the main story.”

Finally, for people unfamiliar with this play, what does Wunderlee feel they will find worthwhile and be able to take away from this production?

“I can’t emphasize enough how hilarious and very funny this play is while being very in your face and offensive at the same time,” she concludes. “But I think it’s the relationships in the show that will draw people in and how two people can find each other in a hospital room while also absorbing more depth in the parent and child relationships.”

“Anybody who loves their Mom is going to enjoy this play because hearts are truly exposed. Everybody has a parental figure; and that’s what theatre is really all about - finding a piece of yourself in the story.”

Pit & Balcony’s After Dark Series production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City’ runs June 23-24-25th at 8:30 PM.  Tickets are only $15.00 and can be purchased by phoning 989.754.6587 or visiting PitandBalconyTheatre.com


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