(Author's note: I'm a proud ensemble member of the Curtainbox Theatre Company, and along with interviewee Lora Adams, am serving as co-associate producer on Wit.)
"When you hear that word - cancer - it's very surreal," says WQPT-TV Director of Marketing Lora Adams, regarding her 2008 diagnosis with the disease. "There's a moment when the reality of it not being a television show, or not happening to somebody else's family, has to sort of settle in. You have that moment of 'Holy crap.' And then once that happens, you move forward."
Adams is describing her own experience, but she could also be describing the opening minutes of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that Adams is currently co-associate producing for the Curtainbox Theatre Company. (The show runs August 12 through 29 at the Village of East Davenport's Village Theatre.) Written by Margaret Edson, the play concerns a middle-aged college professor recently diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer, and follows her through her hospitalization, her radiation treatments, and - as she explains to the audience in her opening monologue - her eventual death.
Yet despite Wit's subject matter, neither the work nor its leading character, Vivian Bearing, is unremittingly dour. Called "brutally human and beautifully layered" by the New York Times, Edson's 1999 off-Broadway hit is also a poignant, mordantly funny, and ultimately comforting play, one that Adams believes has the capacity to speak to everyone.
"It's hard to find anyone who hasn't been touched, in one way or another, by cancer," she says. "And I think what Wit does is allow an audience the opportunity to at least experience it without as much emotion as you'd feel experiencing it personally. It prepares them.
Before Wit's Curtainbox staging or her own 2008 cancer diagnosis, frequent area performer and director Adams helmed a 2002 presentation of Edson's drama for Davenport's New Ground Theatre - a production that, like the play's present incarnation, also starred St. Ambrose University Theatre Professor Corinne Johnson as Vivian. And Adams says that when Curtainbox Artistic Director Kimberly Furness "talked about doing Wit again" with Broadway veteran Philip William McKinley directing, "and then talked about Cory doing it again, that was certainly very intriguing.
"So we went to lunch, and she said, 'Would you like to associate produce, because of your personal experience with the show, and your personal experience with cancer?' And I said sure. I was happy to help out any way I could."
It was New Ground Artistic Director Chris Jansen who first introduced Adams to Edson's play. "She had given me Wit," says Adams, "and I read it, and my first thought was, 'Oooo ... I don't know that I'm up to the task of this play.' Because, you know, sometimes you read something and you just know you want it to be perfect." She thought, however, that greatness could certainly be achieved with the right actress in the lead, "because this show rises and falls on Vivian."
Enter Corinne Johnson. Literally. "Cory came in," says Adams, "and I was told right off the bat that she loved the play, but that her schedule was crazy, and she really wasn't going to be able to do it. But I gave her a side to read, and within, I don't know, a nanosecond, that was it. It was luminous. She was Vivian. And so we sat down and I said, 'Okay. I want you in this. You would like to do this show. Let's work around your crazy schedule.'"
The resulting production, says Adams, was a considerable success - "We sold very well, between 100 and 120 a night" at Rivermont Collegiate - and its director was especially pleased that audiences embraced Wit's inherent, unforced positivity.
"For me, Wit wasn't so much about cancer," she says. "It wasn't so much about this woman dying, and the journey in that dying, but how wonderful it was that she had lived. That she had impacted so many lives with her passion for her work. Love her or hate her, she was certainly passionate about what she taught."
As much as she loved the play, however, Adams didn't necessarily plan on revisiting it. Yet several years later, she was forced into revisiting its subject, when a routine physical revealed a series of lumps on Adams' thyroid, a discovery that led to a sonogram procedure, which, in turn, led to a biopsy.
"Then the phone call came," says Adams. "I got a message to 'Call us back immediately.' And I thought, 'Well, this can't be good.' Your head immediately clicks and you go, 'They're gonna tell me I have cancer.'"
She did. "I literally sat down and the doctor said, 'I'm sorry - you have cancer.'" (It should be noted that, barring the first two words, this is exactly how Vivian's physician breaks the news to her in Wit. "At least my doctor added the 'I'm sorry,'" Adams says with a laugh.)
Adams was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma, and says that while "this cancer is not like others - you don't get chemotherapy in the traditional sense," her experiences during treatment did oftentimes mirror those of Wit's Vivian Bearing, particularly the one expressed in Vivian's line "You cannot imagine how time ... can be ... so still."
"There's a sameness to the days," says Adams. "With any kind of catastrophic illness, you know, one day rolls into the other - there's no real morning, noon, night kind of thing. Because you're continually going to the doctor and coming home and getting poked and prodded ... . There's no real sense of time. There's just this continuum of yuck, you know?"
And Adams says she felt that continuum most acutely during the four days she spent in isolation following her radiation-tablet treatments - although, unlike Vivian in the hospital, Adams was at least allowed to be isolated in her own home.
"I went to the den in my basement," she says, "where I had a little refrigerator, and a little microwave, and my computer, and I thought, you know, 'It's gonna be a cakewalk. I love to read, I love to watch movies ... . How tough is this gonna be?'"
She quickly discovered, however, that with her radiation treatments and nutrient-depleting diet eradicating her short-term memory, "it was impossible to follow the plotline for a movie. Or to read a book - you're just reading the same page, the same page, the same page. And I thought, 'God, these are the longest days of my life.' And the nights were worse. It was like, 'Is it ever going to get light out?' I mean, every night. I was just out of my mind.
"And I was only dealing with four days of isolation," she adds. "In the long run, I'm pretty damned lucky."
As with Vivian, what helped Adams through her treatments was keeping her sense of humor. "You just have to laugh through it," she says. "What else can you do?" And also helping was a perk unavailable to Wit's central figure: her ability to continue working.
"I knew I'd be tired," says Adams, "I knew I'd be out for a couple days with surgery, I knew I had treatment to go through, and blah blah blah. But work is something that's always sort of saved me. You always have that choice: Do I go sit in the corner and drool all over myself and cry, or do I just pick myself up and keep going?
"That doesn't mean you're never scared," she continues. "That doesn't mean you're never concerned. It just means, if I have it, I'm living with it, not dying of it. That's the choice I that I think you have to make."
And it's a choice that Adams is continuing to make. "All my tests were coming along well," she says of her physical checkups following the 2009 news that she was cancer-free. "My body scan was good, they couldn't find anything, everything had been moving along very well - except my last test. That one, which had been coming out negative, is now positive. Which means I have to go back for more tests in early August, and if it turns out I have something they're not happy with, I'll have to do some more radiation. We'll see."
Yet Adams, who describes herself as "by and large, a pretty darn hopeful person," is maintaining an upbeat attitude toward her latest diagnosis - one aided, ironically, by a play about cancer.
"There's something really nice and comforting about... the whole process of putting a show together," she says. "I have nothing nearly as catastrophic as what the character in Wit is dealing with. But that camaraderie, and being around friends and people I know, and watching young people have this experience ... . I mean, there's this certain element that allows you to sort of sit there and just be grateful."
Wit is being staged at the Village Theatre August 12 through 29; performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and 3 p.m. on Sundays. For information and tickets, call (563)322-8504 or visit TheCurtainbox.com.