Mike Lawler and Talish Barrow know the subject matter of their new documentary play, Cancer Stories, can't exactly compete with Iron Man 2 for lighthearted summer entertainment.
At a recent rehearsal for the world premiere, during which the script was still being tweaked, Lawler and Barrow explained the genesis of the two-year project. They also aired their fear that the serious subject matter might turn people away from the play, which runs May 28-29 at Overture Center's Playhouse.
"We thought about calling it Puppy Stories," Barrow joked, "and handing candy out at the door."
"But we didn't want to dupe people," Lawler added.
Cancer Stories is indeed about cancer. Specifically, it is the culmination of over 40 hours of interviews Lawler and Barrow conducted with Wisconsinites who have faced cancer in varying ways. The two friends spent months going through the transcripts, and from the raw material they constructed a series of intersecting monologues that will be performed by nine experienced actors.
The characters, which include an AIDS patient diagnosed with lymphoma, an oncologist and the parents of a child with a brain tumor, take turns grappling with the questions that emerge from facing a serious illness. The subjects range from the practical, such as the battle for quality health insurance, to the profound, such as accepting one's mortality.
The idea for this project was generated by Lawler's own experience with cancer, and some of the interviews were actually carried out while he underwent treatment for a recurrence.
"I felt like there are all these different sides, different stories of cancer," Lawler said, "but there are not that many plays about it."
A theater veteran and production director at Children's Theater of Madison, Lawler enlisted Barrow to help him fill this dramatic void, and together the two of them created a brilliant, heart-wrenching and occasionally hilarious play that will move theatergoers, whether or not cancer has affected their lives.
In conjunction with Cancer Stories, Wisconsin Story Project, which Lawler and Barrow co-founded with Christina Martin-Wright, is presenting the art exhibit Cancer Stories...Art in Overture's Playhouse Gallery, along with the debut of the Wisconsin Storybooth, a mobile story-collecting booth.
As art should, Cancer Stories transcends its subject matter. They are not simply cancer stories. They are human stories.