Review: HER2

by Lynn on January 17, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Maja Ardal

Directed by Kim Blackwell

Designed by Julie Tribe

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Jennifer Gillmor

Projection design by Denyse Karn

Choreography by Monica Dottor

Starring: Olunike Adeliyi

Diane D’Aquila

Monica Dottor

Kyra Harper

Brenda Kamino

Nancy Palk

Ellora Patnaik

Chick Reid

Maria Vacratsis

Bahareh Yaraghi

A sobering and (yes) hilarious look at cancer and how a small community of seven women coped with it.

The Story. HER2 by Maja Ardal focuses on seven women with an aggressive cancer named HER2 and their involvement with an experimental drug trial. It also involves the doctor heading the trial and the two assistants involved in the treatment.

If anyone can find the humour in cancer it’s Maja Ardal. And at times HER2 is hilarious.  Ardal’s own experience with cancer three years ago informs this work.  HER2 is the name of an aggressive kind of cancer. Seven women who have it are chosen to participate in the medical trials of a new drug. The criteria seems to be that their cancer is hopeless without the treatment of the drug.

The women are a cross section of ages, nationalities and ethnicities.   Each has her own story—Frances owns a dairy farm; Daphne is a housewife; Naomi is a professor of anthropology; Charlene is an actress; Melissa (Mimmie) is a doctor steeped in herbal medicine; Gloria is a cashier at Walmart; and Anya is an angry 19 year old teenager.

Dr. Danielle Pearce is the matter of fact head of the trials.  She is unsentimental and unemotional for the most part. Kate, her PHD research assistant, is more humane and compassionate.

Besides assisting in the trials Kate begins her own investigation into how community helps the healing. In other words how the camaraderie of these women, supporting each other went a long way to heal themselves. Such a notion is hard to measure but the play certainly brings up that intriguing suggestion.

HER2 might be about cancer but it’s also about life. And in every single situation, no matter how desperate the situation, each woman wants to live.

The Production. The play begins with each participant being given a number by an unseen male voice. Initially Dr. Pearce and her Kate refer to the women only by their number when the two women are reviewing the participants’ case files.  In their group the women always refer to each other by name. As the play progresses the medical people also begin referring to them by name. The human quality of the medical profession comes into the play subtly.

The women appear for the trial and for some of it it’s like stand and deliver the story. They come forward and say who they are etc. But when they interact with each other their individualities become clear. For example, Naomi, the professor, is a prickly, cold woman who hides her fear and loneliness.  Daphne, the housewife, remembers how physically loving her husband used to be but since her mastectomy he hasn’t touched her in the same way. Anya is the 19 year old riddled with cancer and angry at the world. She wants nothing to do with the women. Charlene is an actress and mother. She wants to have another child but is discouraged to do it because of her cancer. Frances, the dairy farmer, has turned to God for solace because that’s all she has left.Mimmie frets about her family and dispenses Chinese teas and other herbal medicines. And Gloria is devoted to her family too, worries about her daughter and her looser boyfriend, and hopes for good news.

The subtle changes in their lives, the releasing of their insecurities in this trusting, supportive group is beautifully revealed in this moving, compelling production. It’s directed by Kim Blackwell—I’ve seen a lot of her work at 4th Line Theatre. This is her Toronto debut. More of her work should be seen in the city.  She has a sure hand and a good eye for the subtle reaction.

This is a very ambitious production with projections shot onto a section of wall above the stage, as well as on the patients themselves.  There is one projection of perfectly formed healthy cells being overpowered by seemingly exploding cancer cells. A quibble is that sometimes there were projections without explanation and I found that distracting and puzzling as to what I was looking at. In some cases a scan of light passes over a woman giving an impression of her insides with shadows appearing over part of her. Dr. Pearce sees the shadows and is shocked by what she sees. Dr. Pearce knows what she’s looking at. We don’t. An initial explanation would have been helpful. Then we would ‘get’ what other passes of the light and shadow meant.

Most important Blackwell certainly gets the best out of her powerhouse cast. As Dr. Pearce, Nancy Palk is matter of fact with a direct manner. There is compassion there but it’s enveloped in the urgency of making the trial work. Bahareh Yaraghi, as Kate, is eager, compassionate, supportive and caring.

As Frances, the dairy farmer, Kyra Harper has a brave stoicism about her. She has lots of secrets and we gulp hard when they are revealed. Diane D’Aquila plays Daphne the woman remembering how her husband treated her before her cancer and after.  And when she gets bad news D’Aquila is heartbreaking. As Gloria, the Walmart cashier, Maria Vacratsis takes the humour and sends it out like floating feathers. Gloria is vulgar, loud, funny touching and all you want to do is hug her. As Anya, Olunike Adeliyi properly scowls as an angry teen in the prime of life but fighting that lousy disease. Naomi, as played by Chick Reid, is a condescending, prickly snob, lauding the fact that she’s a professor over her group mates. No matter, the group rallies when she needs them. As Charlene, Monica Dottor is the actress putting on a brave, front. She already has the wig—no turban for her to hide her baldness. Dottor has also created the movement of the group, going through pain, camaraderie, pleasure, and as Minnie the dispenser of herbal remedies, Brenda Kamino is self-contained and at peace—Dr. Pearce isn’t sure if it’s the drug, or Mimmie’s potions.

Comment. The play also gives the audience a keen lesson in all the various faux pas that are made by well-meaning people talk to a person who has/or is going through cancer treatment.

The comments are brutal and hilarious. Ardal doesn’t let anyone off easy. I love that.

HER2 is a play about cancer, life and hope. It’s deeply moving and hilarious as well.

See this one too.

Produced by Nightwood Theatre

Opened: January 15, 2015

Closes: February 1, 2015

Cast: 10 women

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.


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