It begins as an interdisciplinary paean to breasts: the words we have for them, from the standard “boobs” and “tits” to the more festive “pineapples,” “cupcakes,” and “maracas.” Their physiology, from the areolas to the lactiferous sinuses. The art they’ve inspired, like Picasso’s brazen mammaries, which point and stretch in impossible directions. Their mightiness in shaping sex and sensuality — first glimpses, the soft luxuries they connote by word alone. The female breast is celebrated with such relish in the opening lines of Purple Breasts (a touring production of the Two Lights Theatre Ensemble written by Daryl Lindstrom and directed by Wil Kilroy, on stage this weekend in USM’s Luther Bonney Auditorium) that it is all the more devastating to watch as one woman’s breast is stricken with cancer.
After actress Zoe (Karen Ball), finds a lump in the shower, which soon metastasizes, she can’t work, is wrecked by the chemo, and must now think constantly about her body and the prospect of dying. But things change just as rapidly for everyone in her life. Purple Breasts’ cast of eight also includes Pamela Bailey, Meghan Benton, Michelle Lee, Deborah O’Connor, Jackie Oliveri, Stacy Strang, and Kilroy, who portray the others who are intimately involved with Zoe’s cancer. Her husband must adjust to her new dependence, her demands, her frequent anger, and, of course, the prospect of her absence. With her best friend, her mother, and her little sister, there are arguments about treatment, denial, and the appropriateness of family counseling. Though it’s Zoe’s body that is failing from the cancer, everyone close to her is ravaged by it, too.
This is harrowing, starkly emotional stuff, and it is made all the more so because the play’s author, Daryl Lindstrom, wrote it as she herself was dying from breast cancer. She died the same year as its first production, in 1989, which she also directed. Ball and Kilroy revive it now, in their traveling production, to raise breast cancer awareness, to acknowledge the difficult daily issues in the lives of patients, and to provide opportunities for dialogue between patients, family members, and health practitioners. All profits that Two Lights gleans from the $10 suggested donation for each show will go to breast care centers throughout the state. After each performance, members of the Maine Breast Cancer Coalition and other medical professionals will be on hand to panel a conversation among audience members.
Medicine itself gets a blunt treatment in Lindstrom’s script. One treatment scene makes physical metaphors of the aggressiveness and insensitivity that cancer victims can suffer in the hands of the medical industry: As Zoe undergoes a lung biopsy, which involves being punctured through the back and into the lung, the clinician slaps, punches, shakes, and finally kicks her in the chest. Alternative medicine doesn’t fare much better. When David seeks help for Zoe in a Transcendental healing center, he’s shocked when the la-la yoga mistress insists that Zoe must “take responsibility for her disease,” and goes on to explain that “we cause our own illnesses by our subconscious behavior.” Desperate for a cure, Zoe writes to a Tibetan guru living in India, buys herbs by the bushel, and considers a heat therapy that would raise her body temperature to 107 degrees, possibly killing cancer cells but also, potentially, arresting her heart. She finds a particular new clinic that seems promising, only to learn that they require $4500 up front. This raises the difficult issue of finances in fighting cancer — one wants to think that no expense should be spared in trying to keep a loved one alive, but the monetary reality is quite another story for most people.