Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
Pictured: Mary Williamson and Stef Tovar. Photo by Brandon Dahlquist.
By Bec Willet
A hospital room is a ubiquitous yet evocative thing. Stiff linen corners, tiny paper cups, polyester-clad furniture – all in chemical pastels so sterile that even the filth of grief and the sloppiness of celebration remain unabsorbed. Route 66’s A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY (heretofore known as A FUNNY THING) by Halley Feiffer takes place in such a room – one that is so faithfully reproduced by scenic designer Courtney O’Neill and props designer Amanda Hermann that you might think you feel the burn of ammonia on your nostrils.
In her work, Feiffer explores “the ties between humor and pain…and how one can morph into the other and then back again.” Two women in various stages of ovarian cancer Geena (Judy Lea Steele) and Marcy (Meg Thalken) have just been moved into the same hospital room. While they are asleep, their respective children Don (Stef Tovar), a middle-aged man amidst a divorce, and twenty-something comedienne Karla (Mary Williamson) form a relationship that starts as a cathartic way to pass time but grows into something that is much more. The humor and pain of the situation are not only reflected in the content but in the writing style. Funny and bold, Feiffer walks the line between high-energy farce and poignant realism. It makes for a rollercoaster of emotions for audience and actors alike, but also highly appropriate for the intensity of emotions and events of a hospital room.
Just as in the scenic design, the rigor of specificity required by the play is embraced by the direction and ensemble. While in one or two moments the emotional gymnastics get the better of Tovar and Williamson, overwhelmingly their pacing, relationship and character development are truthful, funny and full of surprise. Joined by the contained Thalken and Steele, A FUNNY THING’s strong ensemble of actors is only made stronger by the specificity and use of play in Keira Fromm’s direction. The best of many, many hilarious moments is certainly a sex scene coordinated by intimacy director Sasha Smith. It was wonderful to see a realistic portrayal of how the body is able to function having sex instead of the glossed over version we could have been provided. Even better, while it was so enjoyably awkward for the audience, it was also clear that care had been taken with these moments and these actors felt confident and safe in what they were enacting.
The warm performances between the clinical walls of Route 66’s A FUNNY THING will have you laughing awkwardly, loudly, and freely but the relationships at the heart of it will also remind you that pain and laughter aren’t that far away from each other after all.
A FUNNY THINGS HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT AT MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING CANCER CENTER OF NEW YORK CITY runs through September 23rd The Den Theatre’s new Bookspan Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago. For more information visit route66theatre.org.