Entering into a basement theater, set up like a café, a sense of comfort and connection is immediately established. A lone woman (Anna-Helena McLean) sits on the stage, playing a cello and occasionally singing out emotions. The lights dim and we are told to wait, just a moment, for the play to begin as we learn the story behind the woman’s cello. It involves her father and his desperate belief that as long as he kept working on this cello, his wife would still be alive, despite the cancer. From there we are brought into the true story of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman who, in the 1950s, went into a hospital with a very unique and advance case of cervical cancer. The doctors sliced off cells from her tumor without her permission, without the family’s knowledge, and through these endlessly multiplying cells doctors have dramatically expanded their knowledge of cancer and discovered treatments to a vast variety of once incurable diseases. We see this story through the eyes of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah (Clare Perkins) who struggles in understanding a mother she lost too young while strangers and doctors badger her about her mother’s cells. Dr. Christoph Lengauer (John McKeever), pleads with her to speak at a conference, to remind people that these cells once came from a real woman, from a mother. Running parallel, overlapping the story in space and props, is a woman’s struggle to come to terms with her husband’s death from cancer. As Rosa (McLean) struggles through dealing with this cancer-causing gene, she tries to channel her grief into her music, as her life with her husband Mick (McKeever) seems to float in and out of her memories.
The play manages to beautifully and subtly capture moments and messages. The beauty of it comes from the fact that these messages are never lingered over, never sanctimonious. They just exist as fact, as a truth so essential that it does not need to be built up. One such moment seems like a through away line: Deborah asks which gene makes her mother black and Lengauer casually and briefly remarks that you can’t tell color from a human cell. Maybe its from recently watching 12 Years a Slave but the line felt meaningful to me, a statement on equality in the building blocks of humanity.
All three actors are stunning to watch, transitioning between characters effortlessly and infusing them with strength, grief and desperation to understand. The seems to float around the set, ghosts touching each others stories as they take on new roles in each story. The use of technology is also a stroke of metaphoric genius. A screen sometimes filled with static and images of past memories and lives, other times a screen for microscopic cells, this integration of technology mimics the infusion of technology into the lives of human cells, modern technology that can change how we understand cancer. This production’s use of technology, also similar to medicine’s use, is not always effective, however. At times shadows or the actors obscure the dates of scenes and it becomes a little difficult to follow the order of events as it jumps through time. Nonetheless this is a beautiful and universal tale of grief and the realization that no matter how advanced we become in our technology and cures, we can never truly master nature.