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Looking for the Pony
From a theatrical point of view, then, we might expect monologues about the measles and musicals about the mumps, but major theatrical projects that dare to delve into the unseemly world of illness have been few and far between. (Two recent examples include Margaret Edson's harrowing drama Wit and Lisa Kron's cheeky riff Well.)
Blame it on our quest for immortality (see Botox and the media), blame it on fear and denial (again, see Botox and the media). Part of the problem, perhaps, is that we often go to the theater to escape our everyday woes, not to dwell on them. But what if illness were transformed into one of the "prime themes" of theater — a portal through which to see the world (and ourselves) from an illuminating new perspective?
Andrea Lepcio's wry, witty, and warm play Looking for the Pony offers keen insights on illness by focusing on the relationship between two sisters, one of whom develops breast cancer. Don't be scared off by the subject matter. Under the keen direction of Stephan Golux, it's the sisters' enduring relationship, not the illness, that forms the heart of the play, and J. Smith-Cameron and Deirdre O'Connell turn in riveting performances that should not be missed. Whether you've experienced illness personally or obliquely, this is a show you should see. Instead of letting life end at diagnosis, Lepcio shows us how it continues — and flourishes.
At the beginning, the sisters are positioned on opposite coasts and in opposite worlds: in California, Lauren (O'Connell) is an energetic social worker with a husband and two young sons; in New York, Eloisa (Smith-Cameron) has a girlfriend and a mind-numbing job in finance. We also find out that they're not biological sisters, but stepsisters. Judging by a series of flashbacks, their parents' remarriage was not a happy one, and Lauren, the older one, became something of a second mother to Eloisa.
Although the flashbacks are often interesting, they are also sometimes random and awkward (the inherent oddness of adults playing children). The most compelling element of the play is the relationship between the sisters as it evolves in the present moment. Lauren finds out about her breast cancer just as Eloisa is on the cusp of (finally) going after her dream — studying creative writing in graduate school with a famous writer. Although Eloisa is able to fly out regularly to help take care of her sister, Lauren forces her to carry on with her life. And to anyone who has survived the illness of a loved one, Eloisa's guilt and anxiety will seem achingly familiar.
The charm, grace, and ingenuity of Looking for the Pony bubbles up as it explores cancer through the intimate bonds of sisterhood. We never meet (or hear much about) Lauren's husband or Eloisa's girlfriend; instead, we get a microscopic look at the sisters, and the rest is just noise.
This "noise" is portrayed by the other two actors, the hard-working, costume-whirling, accent-spinning Debargo Sanyal and Lori Funk, who play a wild assortment of supporting characters with gusto. Together, they offer a grab bag of Saturday Night Live-worthy caricatures that parade across the austere set. Sanyal is especially excellent as the egotistical Indian oncologist, but his depiction of Eloisa's equally egotistical writing teacher suffers a bit from an indeterminate accent. Funk is pitch-perfect as Lauren's harried, over-anxious assistant, who shakes like a leaf at any mention (or passing thought) of her boss's disease.
The bizarre supporting characters only makes Eloisa and Lauren's relationship seem all the more grounded. They have an "us against the world" mentality that is fleshed out through their shared linguistic shorthand, from nicknames ("Lar" and "Ouise") to the clipped, no-nonsense way in which they communicate:
Lauren: "How was your flight? "
Eloisa: "You look sick."
Lauren: "I have cancer."
Throwing humor in the face of illness is nothing new, but the synchronicity and precise rhythms of these two actresses make the comedy percolate from a relentlessly truthful place. Lepcio's writing often seems to sing as the actresses finish each other's sentences and embrace the unique cadences of their relationship. Both O'Connell and Smith-Cameron deliver extraordinary performances here. If you didn't know better, you'd think they really were sisters.
As Lauren moves through diagnosis, treatment, and medications (and moves from using a cane to using a walker to using a wheelchair), the sisters take each step together. But most poignantly, Lepcio shows us where that shared path must inevitably split. This divergence is present in Eloisa's nearly imperceptible pang of jealousy when she sees her sister bond with a fellow cancer patient. It's also there each time Lauren nags her sister to continue writing, growing, and moving forward.
So how do we keep going in the face of illness? Looking for the Pony doesn't offer any easy answers, but it speaks in refreshing, cut-to-the-chase language and provides an indictment of our need to "package" illness. If nothing else, it urges us to follow the sisters' lead and tell our own unique stories, as well as to keep living no matter what may come — whether you're the sick one or the healthy one. As Woolf pointed out, the embrace of illness may bring startling revelations: "How astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed."