Two major Toronto companies are telling cancer stories right now. Nightwood’s HER2 is an ensemble of women participating in a drug trial to treat a deadly form of breast cancer known as HER2. Collecting the 7 women in a single treatment room over the course of many weeks, playwright Maja Ardal’s story looks at the effects of community on immunity and recovery. Using the contrasting microscopes of Nancy Palk’s hyper-focused Dr. Danielle Pearce and Bahareh Yaraghi’s compassionate PhD candidate Kate as our glimpses into this tense microcosm, HER2 is as much a character piece about inorganic community and the effect of shared experience as it is a story about cancer research. The patients include Olunike Adeliyi’s bratty (and distractingly not 19) Anya, Monica Dottor’s kind but vain actress Charlene, Diane D’Aquila as a sweet and innocent mother, Chick Reid as a cold and aloof professor, Brenda Kamino’s eternally optimistic Minnie, Maria Vacratsis’s brash and upbeat Gloria and, my favourite, Kyra Harper as a serene and resigned widowed dairy farmer whose visible tumour becomes the measuring stick for hope and despair among the women. Director Kim Blackwell relies too much on stylized physicality and projections to tell her intimate story and the pacing, especially in act one, could be much tighter but, even if some of Ardal’s characters feel a bit shallow, Nightwood’s production gives us many people to care about, beyond the science, in their search for survival.
In Tarragon’s Waiting Room, none of the characters are themselves actually cancer patients. Rather than observers, here the doctors are main players and Andre (Ari Cohen)’s battle against early-onset Alzheimer’s takes over the A plot. Only his bittersweet final scene, though, is close to as affecting as the real heart of Waiting Room, the parents who occupy it (Michelle Monteith and Jordan Pettle, both at the top of their emotional game), waiting for test results on their cancerous daughter Jenny. Director Richard Greenblatt could have used a lighter touch (especially in that accidentally funny final moment) and the play’s split focus detracts from its overall effect when the Cohen-centric storyline can’t keep up with the strength of the Monteith-led one but its founding emotion comes through strong in the end (or, at least, one second before the end).
HER2 plays at Buddies in Bad Times until February 1st.
Waiting Room plays at the Tarragon Mainspace until February 15th.