FireWorks: Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in Radical

Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

The final production of Alumnae Theatre’s annual FireWorks program opened last night: Charles Hayter’s Radical, directed by Neil Affleck, with associate director Ingryd Pleitez.

I saw an earlier version of Radical at the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival – and loved it – so I was very excited to see it again in its current iteration. Hayter and Affleck describe the process that led to the FireWorks production in an interview on the Alumnae Theatre blog.

Based on the true story of Canadian oncologist Dr. Vera Peters’ (Helly Chester) fight for a less aggressive procedure than radical mastectomy to treat stage one breast cancer tumors, Radical takes us along with Peters as she navigates the old boys’ club that is medicine – represented by the character Dr. Bernie Fowler (Rob Candy) – and an 80-year-old ‘gold standard’ treatment that has never been questioned. That is, until she meets Professor Rose Levine (Kelly-Marie Murtha), who has a two-centimeter tumor – and wants to know why they just can’t remove the tumor and leave the rest of her breast alone. With the help of new young, forward-thinking surgeon Frank (Feerass Ellid), and despite the grave misgivings of her nurse Helen (Anne Shepherd), Peters launches a retrospective case study, diving into thousands of hospital patient records in an effort to prove that the lumpectomy is just as effective as the radical at treating cancer – and certainly less fraught with negative, life-changing side effects.

The expanded script (from a 50-minute running time in Fringe to about 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission, in the current production) makes for a more thoughtful pace and a more gradual arc as Peters goes from being an unquestioning supporter of the status quo to a tireless fighter for change. Chester does a nice job with Peters’ journey from accepting to questioning to searching to fighting. An attentive physician who is sympathetic to patient concerns about the radical’s degree of invasiveness, her kind bedside manner tends towards sugar-coating the possible negative outcomes. But, gradually, her intensifying anger against a procedure that puts tradition and expediency – and even financial gain – over the wishes and best interests of the patient spurs her to action. A reluctant – and ultimately courageous – hero, medical choices become personal when she’s faced with her own breast cancer diagnosis. Murtha’s Rose is the perfect catalyst for Peters’ change of heart. An outspoken feminist, irreverently funny and always asking how things could be better, she refuses to take her post-operation side effects lying down and inspires Peters to be the fighter that breast cancer patients need.

Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

Candy’s Dr. Fowler is a great foil for Peters, a long-time colleague and friend turned frenemy on the other side of this battle. A chauvinistic, arrogant surgeon who’s happy to have Peters working oncology and schlepping through statistics for a case study he wants to co-author with her, he’ll brook no suggestion as to how the surgery could be improved. And this despite the fact that he has direct knowledge of the emotional and physical aftermath of the radical after assisting with the procedure on his wife. Shepherd is bang-on as the tough, clockwork proficient, old-school nurse Helen; fiercely protective and supportive of Peters in most things, she takes the fatalist view – believing that change isn’t possible, so why even try. Enter Ellid’s wide-eyed, idealistic and driven young Frank, who has an eye on distinguishing himself as a surgeon and on the future of his profession. Refusing to be indoctrinated into old boys’ medicine, he questions and seeks a better way – and, like Peters, is willing to risk his job to get the lumpectomy recognized as a viable alternative to the radical.

In the end, Radical is as much about the guiding principle Primum Non Nocere (First, Do No Harm) as it is about the pioneering of the lumpectomy as a standard alternative to radical mastectomy. It brings forward important questions of patient consultation and the impact of surgery on quality of life. It asks what good is there in saving a patient’s life when they are left physically and mentally broken – with no guarantees that the cancer won’t come back anyway.

Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in the eye-opening, dramatic and sharply funny Radical.

Radical continues at Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks until November 22; you can purchase tickets online or an hour before show time at the box office (cash only).

You can follow the goings on at Alumnae Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, take a look at trailer for Radical:

 

 

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FireWorks: Divine Wrecks a heartbreaking & powerful tale of forbidden love – erotic, wickedly funny & engaging

Fleur Jacobs & Hugh Ritchie in Divine Wrecks - photo by Bruce Peters
Fleur Jacobs & Hugh Ritchie in Divine Wrecks – photo by Bruce Peters

A high school hockey god falls in love with the wrong girl: his teacher, who falls right back at him. And there’s nothing more heartbreaking than a wrong love that feels so right.

Alumnae Theatre opened its third annual FireWorks series to a packed house in the Studio last night, the three-show program launching with Chloë Whitehorn’s Divine Wrecks, directed by Pamela Redfern, assisted by Melissa Chetty.

Divine Wrecks is a contemporary take on a classic story of forbidden love. Eddy (Hugh Ritchie) is the new kid at school, his arrival deliciously anticipated by his classmates (who also serve as the play’s Chorus: Annelise Hawrylak, Megan O’Kelly, Michael Pearson and Luis Guillermo Villar), who view him as a mysterious stranger with a tragic past (he was involved in a car accident and the other driver, who was the one at fault, was killed). Enter their English teacher Cass (Fleur Jacobs) and Eddy, a star athlete with a reputation for being a player, is undone. And despite his gruff, macho exterior and challenges with expressing his feelings – and perhaps because of it – Eddy and Cass find a deep emotional connection that blossoms into a secret affair. And, of course, it’s all going to end in tears.

Ritchie and Jacobs have remarkable chemistry as the secret lovers. Ritchie’s Eddy is a bit of a Renaissance man, wise beyond his years – perhaps largely due to his recent personal tragedy – a popular student and skilled hockey player, well-read and articulate, and apparently an adept lover. Eddy is an old romantic soul despite his jockish, pretty boy bravado – and Ritchie does a nice job with revealing the layers of struggle, frustration, longing and despair. Jacobs is lovely as Cass, smart, good-natured and funny – an engaging teacher who is both genuine with and protective of her students, which makes her emerging feelings for Eddy all the more agonizing for her. Cass really wants to do the right thing, keep her job and maintain her integrity, but finds herself unable to resist the draw to Eddy – and Jacobs does an excellent job with Cass’s inner conflict as the undeniable attraction between Cass and Eddy breaks through any sense of decorum, morality or rules to the tender, fragile place that lies beneath.

The Chorus: Megan O'Kelly, Luis Guillermo Villar, Annelise Hawrylak & Michael Pearson in Divine Wrecks - photo by Bruce Peters
The Chorus: Megan O’Kelly, Luis Guillermo Villar, Annelise Hawrylak & Michael Pearson in Divine Wrecks – photo by Bruce Peters

The Chorus is marvelous. Far from being bit players, these four (they are numbered rather than named) are contemporary archetypes and the modern-day embodiment of the classical Chorus, ever watchful and always commenting. One, the Jock (Pearson): tall, muscular, jersey-wearing, wise-cracking hockey player. Two, the Cheerleader (Hawrylak): bubbly and extroverted, entitled, superficial and a bit dim. Three, the Rebel (O’Kelly): punk-styled, free-spirited loner with a fuck-you attitude who’s smarter than you think, mostly because she plays it close to the chest. Four, the Nerd (Villar): socially awkward, nervous, flood-panted and bespectacled, whip smart and asthmatic. They add some much needed comic relief to this unfolding tragedy, and pose important questions and thoughts. They could see it coming – and someone should do something. But what could they do? Shifting between titillating gossip and moments of moral and ethical commentary, they are us. They say what the audience is thinking – and they even sometimes speak directly to us.

The 1950s-inspired staging (the doo-wop soundtrack and a cappella Chorus bits) and design (shouts to Peter DeFreitas for the fabulous 50s-inspired costumes) add an extra layer of romance, even innocence, and vintage style to the production.

Divine Wrecks is a heartbreaking and powerful tale of forbidden love – erotic, wickedly funny and engaging.

The first of three shows featured in the 2015 FireWorks program, Divine Wrecks runs until Nov 8 in the Alumnae Theatre Studio; you can purchase tix in advance online or one hour before performance time at the box office (cash only). The Studio is an intimate space, so advance booking is strongly recommended for all FireWorks shows.

The FireWorks program also features a series of ‘Behind the Curtain’ post-show talk-backs after every performance – except for opening nights, when the audience is invited to join the cast and crew for a reception in the Alumnae Theatre lobby. Coming up next in the FireWorks program: Cottage Radio, by Taylor Marie Graham (Nov 11-15) and Radical, by Charles Hayter (Nov 18-22).

You can keep up with the goings on at Alumnae via Facebook and Twitter.

In the meantime, you can check out the Alumnae blog interviews with playwright Whitehorn and director Redfern – and the Divine Wrecks trailer:

Toronto Fringe: Sharp-witted, informative & moving story of the fight for the lumpectomy in Radical

radical.web_-250x250So what if I told you that, up until the 70s, radical mastectomy was the go-to procedure for Stage One breast cancer (e.g., a pea-sized tumor)? You’d likely be a bit shocked, puzzled and possibly enraged. Right? I know I was.

Playwright/oncologist Charles Hayter’s play Radical – developed and presented as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in March, and currently running in the Toronto Fringe Festival – tells the true-life story of Dr. Vera Peters, a Princess Margaret Hospital oncologist who fought for an alternative procedure, the lumpectomy, where only the tumor is removed.

Directed by Edgar Chua, Radical has a fine cast: Jane Smythe gives a very strong performance as the sharp, wry-witted and kind workaholic Peters; and Susan Q. Wilson is a picture of efficiency and protective concern as Peters’ nurse colleague Helen. Sheila Russell is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty, good-humoured, no-bullshit feminist activist Professor Rose Levine – who is more than happy to lock horns with Jerrold Karch’s cantankerous, arrogant and narrow-minded Chief of Surgery Dr. Fowler. And Jeff Yung is endearing and gutsy as the put-upon, forward-thinking young surgeon Frank.

Peters is eventually forced to make some critical treatment decisions herself when she gets her own diagnosis. But throughout the course of this play, we see that her push to examine the efficacy of, and ultimately implement, the lumpectomy wasn’t just a struggle for women’s health/rights, but for all patients’ rights – striving to afford patients the compassion, respect and decision-making power they deserve within the health care system. Hayter’s play gets to the heart of the Hippocratic oath maxim “Do no harm;” it must extend to treatment procedures – providing a good outcome, while keeping the possible negative impact on the patient in mind.

On a personal note – as someone who’s had a hinky mammogram result, a negative biopsy and ongoing mammogram follow-up to keep an eye on the suspicious particles – I’m very glad and grateful that Peters’ work resulted in the possibility of keeping my breast, should the need for surgery come to pass.

Radical is a sharp-witted, informative and moving telling of Peters’ fight for the lumpectomy.

Running until July 13 at the Tarragon Main Space, you can find exact dates/times for Radical here.

Lost youth, family secrets, modern-day parable & silence speaking volumes in New Ideas Week Two program

NIF2014-banner-1024x725Back at Alumnae Theatre for the Week Two program of the New Ideas Festival last night – and this is a very strong program, featuring four excellent – and very different – plays.

The Living Library, by Linda McCready and directed by Stacy Halloran is a delightfully funny two-hander about a young woman who comes to the library to take advantage of the Living Library Program to borrow a “living book” for a career conversation. Ann Marie Krytiuk is a treat as the energetic and driven, but lost, Sylvia; and Scott Moulton is marvelous as her interview subject, senior policy analyst Tom.

Better Angels: A Parable, by Andrea Scott and directed by Pomme J-Corvellec, uses both multi-media and traditional storytelling to great effect to present a modern-day morality tale. Akosua Mans (Keriece Harris), a young woman from Ghana who dreams of a better life in Canada, takes a job as a housekeeper/nanny for Toronto yuppies Leila (Hilary Hart) and Greg Tate (Daniel De Pas), and becomes their domestic prisoner. Caught in their own web of malicious machinations and deceit, the Tates’ plans go terribly awry. Harris does a lovely job as Akosua, shifting from wide-eyed, dreamy naiveté to wisdom and taking power over her situation as an immigrant domestic worker in a bad situation. Hart does a great job with Hilary’s conflicting emotions – domineering, controlling and tightly wound, but sad and lonely, and longing for connection; and De Pas brings a nice balance to Greg’s seemingly easy-going nature, all the while burning with unresolved passion underneath. Excellent use of projection for the set; it was very cool to see the cursor draw it on the canvas curtain as the stage was set, and the close-ups of Akosua’s face really draw the audience to her as a person – not an ethnicity, a skin colour or a service worker, but a person.

The Shimmering Odessa Building or Whatever, by Judith Upjohn and directed by Zoë Erwin-Longstaff, takes us on an unusual road trip of aimlessness, anomie and literature with three intelligent, hip and tech-savvy young women – all set against the backdrop of a scorched earth ravaged by climate change. Outstanding work from the cast: Sharon Belle (Writer/Iris), the driver, both coolly detached and lyrical; Tiana Asperjan (Cali), the cynical wise-cracking, but sensitive, friend riding shotgun; and Janice Yang (Wiki-Wendy) as the teenage backseat tag-along with an encyclopedic mind, who breaks her long silences with salient information and data.

Brockfest, by Joan Burrows and directed by Eric Benson, is a delightful family comedy. Siblings are reunited at Kitty’s (Liz Best) celebration of “not being American” anymore, where secrets are revealed and that nun’s got her eyes on you. Excellent ensemble cast on this one. Best brings the funny as the stressed out and excited guest of honour, also hosting this gathering; and David Borwick is hilarious as her sweet, but somewhat clueless, husband Cal (not to mention very handsome in uniform). Justen Bennett is both deliciously impish and neurotic as Kitty’s brother Les, and John Marcucci is adorably charming as Les’s partner Paul. And Andrea Lyons is perfectly hysterical as Kitty’s and Les’s sister, Sister Leona, who’s taken a vow of silence. Best. Entrance. Ever.

Lost youth, family secrets, modern-day parable and silence speaking volumes – all in all, a seriously outstanding program of short plays. Week Two closes on March 23, so you only have a few more chances to catch it: twice today and tomorrow afternoon.

The Week Two reading is this afternoon: Charles Hayter’s Radical, directed by Darcy Stoop.

The New Ideas Festival continues next week (Mar 26-30) with its Week Three program and reading. Reservations are strongly recommended as this is a popular festival.

Call 416-364-4170 or visit the Tickets page on the Alumnae website.