Pirates of Chemotherapy

The cast of "Pirates of Chemotherapy" are (from left) Roo Porter, Jessica Riggs, Shar Pietz, Freida Bousman, Linda Pulliam and Melody Reynolds. The show, presented as a reader's theater, is about a support group for women who have had breast cancer -- which all the actresses have been through.

With humor and wit, TheatreWorks presents an uplifting comedy about one of the most unfunny topics there is – cancer.

Of course, there’s also plenty of sadness and introspection in its latest show, a readers theater version of “Pirates of Chemotherapy,” which will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Readers theater means the women dramatically read from the script rather than enact the play.

“Pirates” is about six women who form a breast cancer support group. Local women who have had breast cancer – including two who still are in treatment for it – form its cast.

“I’m really proud of them,” said Tom Berry, the show’s director. “They’ve really dug into the characters.”

The show is sponsored by Ella Mae Wickham and her boutique, Wigs Unlimited & The Cottage Salon. Wickham was a hairdresser before she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 13 years ago. She started selling wigs when she realized how difficult it was to buy one, and now much of her time is spent helping women for whom cancer has affected their hair.

Among the actors, Berry’s wife, Roo Porter, portrays Nancy, the protective, motherly group leader. Married with adult children, she likes to run the group according to the rules.

Jessica Riggs is the introverted Karen, a married pediatric nurse with low self-esteem. Her group is appalled at her husband’s treatment of her and aims to build her up.

Shar Peitz is the free-spirited yet cynical Winnie, a single, self-sufficient store owner. She’s the inspiration behind the Pirates, giving the group that name because pirates address life on their own terms, just like these women now must do.

Freida Bousman is the spiritualistic yoga instructor Peace, who takes a new-age approach to everything.

Linda Pulliam is the brassy, no-holds-barred Doris. The comments of this married, somewhat oversexed woman sometimes raise the others’ eyebrows and keep the women on their toes.

Melody Reynolds is Judith, a hyperorganized soccer mom and wife who is grappling with her worries about how her cancer affects her husband’s feelings for her. Cancer is the blow that puts her perfectly chor-eographed life out of order.

“The feel of the group is pretty good,” Porter said. The rapport “was pretty much instantaneous.”

As soon as she found out she had gotten the part, she regretted having auditioned, Pulliam said. Then she looked at it from her perspective as a former high school English teacher: It’s just reading aloud with expression, the way she had done with her students as well as own children so many times.

Seeing the show would help people who have not had cancer understand more about what someone with cancer goes through, she said.

Riggs and Pulliam are part of the Caring Sisters breast support group. The topics brought up in the show are “very similar to the things we talk about. It’s nice to have a group of ladies who support” one another, Riggs said.

Pietz was the actor who had been diagnosed the most years ago – 38 – and the youngest at diagnosis – 30 – “and that’s not a great honor,” she said.

“It’s great to get out a story about breast cancer and how important it is about early detection,” said Bousman, who was diagnosed with and treated with cancer 20 years ago.

“It’s a good cause, but actually it’s pretty witty” as well, Berry said. During rehearsals, “at some of these lines I tell them, ‘You will have to pause for laughter.’”

Sponsoring the show is a bit of a reunion for Wickham and Berry: He was her doctor when she was diagnosed with breast cancer about 13 years ago, she said.

Berry said he felt that participating in a show about breast cancer “is not easy for them, particularly not the ones who are recently” dealing with it, but they have shown that they want to get across the message of early detection.

Being in the show is “a little bit emotionally difficult, because it brings up a lot of the things” a cancer patient really goes through, Pietz said, “but people need to know the importance of self-checks and mammograms.”

About 300,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, Pulliam said. This show will help them, along with those who have been through that personal drama as well as those who have no idea what it’s like.

“I think Tom was afraid there were not going to be enough people” wanting to be in the show, so publicly identified as cancer survivors, Porter said. However, more people auditioned for the show than could be cast.

Being in the show involves “a little bit of discomfort on our part, and hopefully the message will get through to a few people” who will take them up on “the subtle invitation” to get mammograms and exams, Pietz said.

A scene right before the first act ends sums up the group. Winnie is talking, and the other members answer.

Winnie: Suit up! Scarf?

All: Check.

Winnie: Eye patches:

All: Check!

Winnie: Hooks?

All: Check!

Winnie: Pirate attitude?

All: Arrrrgh!

Winnie: Then it’s off we go, me hearties! Raise anchor!

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

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