Sharing their cancer story

Cancer affects us all in some way – family members, friends, neighbors – we all know someone, and that’s the message the upcoming production at the Lake Benton Opera House wants to send.

“It can be difficult to start a conversation about cancer,” said Kathy Wilmes, one of the actresses in the upcoming show. “Maybe the show can be a way of starting a conversation, encouraging everyone to get checkups, reach out to people who may need someone to talk to, share your cancer story with others.”

“The Pirates of the Chemo” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. April 4-5, 11-12 and 2 p.m. April 6 and 13, at the Lake Benton Opera House. The show is being directed by Mark Wilmes.

“The Pirates of the Chemo” is about a young soccer mom who finds out she has breast cancer. She struggles with her diagnosis and how it affects her relationship with her husband and the challenge to her identity in a support group of interesting characters.

Mark Wilmes said at the script was e-mailed to the Opera House a couple of years ago by Paul Schutte, the author of the play.

“I liked the plot idea but was skeptical about the quality, as we usually order scripts through the larger companies,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised when I read it that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Everyone’s taste in plays is different, but I tend to shy away from the slapstick comedies, and I am drawn more to scripts that tap into more of my emotions than just laughter. More than anything, I suppose, was the fact that I have lost too many people in my life to cancer, and I liked that the show addresses a lot of the raw emotions that are dealt with for real life survivors.”

The members of the support group are being played by Kathy Holck as Nancy, Kayla Lindberg as Winnie, Beth Reams as Judith, Jasmine Reyes as Peace, Sara Vogt as Doris and Kathy Wilmes as Karen. When they first looked through the script, the women had a variety of reactions.

“My first reaction was ‘wow, I had no idea what this all means, and I’m a girl,'” Reyes said.

“This is real life, and this is what really happens to people,” Holck said. “I especially like the way the women bond together and support each other as people and not just in relation to the cancer.”

“I love the script,” said Kathy Wilmes. “The six characters all have personality traits that could easily be friends to most of us. We all know people who are nurturing like Nancy, organized like Judith, outspoken with no filter like Doris, naive like Peace, an independent cynic like Winnie and struggling, low self esteem Karen.”

“It just seemed like it would be a fun way to help raise money and cancer awareness,”?Vogt said. “I feel that anyone who comes to this show will be able to relate to one of the women. We all know someone who’s been affected by this disease…maybe one of these ladies will bring back some great memories for someone.”

The actresses have done a great job of making the characters their own, Mark Wilmes said.

“It can be difficult to play some of these characters who are going through a life-changing battle with something like cancer,” Mark Wilmes said. “It’s hard to conjure up that emotion night after night. Thankfully there is plenty of comic relief that helps them balance the emotions somewhat.”

The story follows six women in the group over several weeks, Holck said.

“This is about emotion – denial, love, heartbreak and triumph coated in laughter and tears,” Holck said. “It all comes down to how we handle what life throws us.”

“It’s serious in areas where you can feel the character’s pain, I always do in rehearsals,” Reyes said. “But it’s very funny, and sometimes it’s so funny that the whole group will bust out laughing.”

Holck said Nancy leads the cancer support group.

“I’ve been through the cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, and I’m sharing that experience with the rest of the ladies in the group,” Holck said of her character. “I would be considered the ‘mother hen’ and am generally the calming influence that holds everyone together.”

Reyes said her character, Peace, a New Age yoga instructor, is a little different, plus it’s her first time onstage at the Opera House.

“She’s a little loopy to me and a complete opposite to myself,” Reyes said. “She’s ditzy but educated in her special way. She tries to bring light to the situation.”

Mark Wilmes said he is chronically emotional, whether he likes it or not, and there are three or four places in the show that tug at him every time.

“I think that will happen to many who see the show, whether or not they have had to deal with cancer head-on,” he said. “I like, however, that the characters make a point that it is OK to laugh, and it in turn makes some of those struggles a bit easier.”

Kathy Wilmes said the show is a look at how the support of friends can get you through some tough times.

“It’s funny, sad, educational, heartbreaking and inspirational,” she said. “These six ladies, all with cancer stories, help each other in ways they didn’t know they could. They use their strengths to help another and learn something about themselves too.”

Mark Wilmes said that Schutte told him that he didn’t write the play to make money; he did it to help raise money for cancer. The royalties for “Pirates of the Chemotherapy” are far below what the Opera House would normally pay for a show, and Schutte offered to lower it even more if the Opera House would donate a part of the proceeds to help fight breast cancer.

“I wanted to keep our donations local, so we passed on that generous offer,” Mark Wilmes said. “My wife, Kathy, and I are so involved heavily in Relay for Life each year. We do it to honor the memory of Kathy’s mom, Darlene, who we lost to cancer in 2009, as well as too many friends along the way.”

Mark Wilmes said he brought the idea to the board to get the local Relay event involved. Lincoln County teams were asked to “adopt” a performance, and they responded wonderfully, he said.

“For the performance their individual teams adopted, they will so goodies and drinks at intermission for a free-will donation and receive $4 for each ticket that evening to go toward their fundraising goal,” he said. Mark Wilmes said the Opera House board liked the idea. The board recently lost a member, Carol Mensen, to cancer “We miss her immensely, and I personally think this is a nice way to pay her homage. First and foremost, we have to take care of our organization, which is a non-profit, but we are happy to be helping out the Relay teams in the process.”

“As co-chair of the Lincoln County Relay for Life and co-captain of a Relay team, I am proud to be a part of this show,” said Kathy Wilmes. “It is alas a great way to involve other teams in Lincoln County to participate.”