The Poppy Garden | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

The Poppy Garden 

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Footsteps Theatre Company

Essayist Florence King once observed that when a Yankee woman discusses "female troubles" she does so matter-of-factly, while a southern woman wrings every bit of horror, histrionics, and heartbreak from them. Television and popular literature these days tend to follow the latter example, treating all female afflictions--physical, psychological, and social--as equally devastating and properly accompanied by copious scenery-chewing emotionalism; any attempt at rational analysis is denounced as insensitive trivialization. This all-heart-and-no-brains approach to the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to has recently infected fashions in playwriting as well, which is what makes Anne McGravie's The Poppy Garden so refreshing. Though the central complication of her autobiographical drama is breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, both McGravie and her protagonist are mature, articulate, and brutally honest with themselves and others, and both are in a fitting position to declare that this disease--while certainly no frivolous matter--need not be the end of the world.

Vera MacAuley is a 50-something writer of educational programs, born in Scotland and residing in Chicago. Her Aunt Mamie is soon to vacate the family cottage on the Irish isle of Innisfree, and Vera hopes it will then pass to her. On the eve of a crucial visit to her aunt, however, Vera discovers what proves to be a cancerous growth so severe as to require prompt surgery. In the three days before her operation, Vera's usually well ordered perceptions take some rather bizarre turns: the way that the pizzeria waitstaff suddenly resemble surgeons in operating garb, for example, and everyone's breasts seem gigantic. She remembers that her father died of this same disease, a fact in those days so shameful that not even the victim was told what he had until his final moments. She becomes angry over the scientific community's neglect of this affliction, and wonders whether mastectomy surgeons joke about their tasks: "Seven breasts off, 13 more to go before I can go home and have a drink." Above all, Vera resents the loss of control over her life of "terminal independence." Sustaining her through her trials is a vision of Charlie Chaplin's little hobo and his love for a dressmaker whose dismembered dummy seems to parallel Vera's fate. Meanwhile her nostalgic longing for the island cottage causes it to swell in her imagination to near-mythic proportions, along with Vera's memory of her grandmother's garden of scarlet poppies.

With the assistance and support of her sister Bea and her niece Biddy--who warns the surgical staff that she will be watching their every move for any blunders--Vera comes through her ordeal with no mishaps. To be sure, she imagines men in radiation suits policing the amphitheater, visualizes a breast deflating like a burst balloon, hypothesizes a This Is Your Life show where no witnesses reaffirm her usefulness, and debates whether to wear a prosthesis ("If we stopped covering it up, we'd get something done about it!" she growls). Ultimately, though, Vera realizes that life, however imperfect, will go on and that she might as well go on with it.

In the difficult role of Vera, Ann Wakefield has a wind-chime voice and a pixie smile that, coupled with the airy inflections characteristic of the Edinburgh dialect, could grow precious and irritating were it not for the fortitude and stubborn pride of her character. At no time does Vera beg our sympathy or pity. She screams once--in sarcastic mockery of the whispers around her--and she cries once, not for her lost breast or any spiritual investment in it but for the disruption in her carefully planned life.

Wakefield receives fine support from Fran Martone as the sensible Bea and Lindsay Porter as the feisty Biddy. The four actors who play some 24 auxiliary roles don't have enough time to do much with them--Hugh Callaly in particular seems ill at ease with McGravie's lyrical language, but Joel Sugarman makes his Charlie Chaplin a suitably whimsical and comforting confidant. Director Nancy Scanlon and production designer Robert Donlan keep a tight rein on a script that, though manifestly intelligent and well written, is not without occasional passages so personal as to be incomprehensible to any but the author, and they keep the potentially grotesque events of Vera's troubled consciousness from ever seeming derisive or mean-spirited.

The Poppy Garden's stoic attitude and wry humor ("Have you come to offer me membership in the Amazon Women's Society? I'm eligible to join now!") may disappoint those theatergoers seeking a jolly good cry. But with an ever-larger portion of our population approaching the age when degenerative diseases take their toll, and not only women but men (look for plays on prostate disorders in the near future), the call for greater efforts to treat this disease is certainly timely, as is a survivor's reassurance that what debilitates need not destroy.


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