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Tucson Weekly Sisters In Sickness

What Women Through The Ages Have Done To Please Men Is A Crime Against Nature And Themselves

By Margaret Regan

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  THE DOCTOR'S waiting room is straight out of the late 20th century, but it's attracted a curious collection of female patients.

A demure Chinese noblewoman, Forgiveness-from-Heaven (Joy Lynn Pak), has come out of the 18th century for help with her rotting feet. She spent her childhood with her feet tortuously bound and the deformed stumps are the delight of her husband--golden lotuses, he calls them--but now the toes are falling off. It seems the feet are dead.

Victoria, a proper 19th-century Victorian lady played by Suzi List, is at the doctor's under her husband's orders. He insists she get her ovaries and uterus cut out, so she can get her hysteria under control. After all, the rest cure and book banning have failed to eliminate her curious habit of involuntarily smacking her pompous husband at regular intervals.

But just when you start thinking that these unfortunate women represent primitive, unscientific mutilations safely in the past, you meet Wanda (Caroline Reed), the audacious 20th-century American whose double D breasts are courtesy of a doctor's slicing and stuffing. Now Wanda's worried she might have breast cancer. In fact, The Waiting Room, a funny, surrealistic play over at Borderlands Theater, makes a persuasive case that modern medicine, for all its high-tech successes, is still infected by strange cultural biases.

Playwright Lisa Loomer is savvy about women's history, and she uses her solid information to wicked effect in a play that borders on the absurd. The three women, each delightfully and authentically costumed, are at first startled by the others. Prim Victoria, for instance, is shocked by a Cosmo magazine in the doctor's office, but then her bustle and stays and corset dumbfound the other two. The corset gives Victoria a desirable 16-inch waist, she placidly explains, and it "hurts only when I breathe." By virtue of long hours in the waiting room and later in the hospital, the three women begin to understand just how much they have in common. For one thing, they've all taken health risks, voluntarily or not, to meet their culture's expectations of female beauty. Maybe 20th-century gynecology is not as far from "hysterical" hysterectomies as we might have thought.

This is great material for a play--funny and important all at once--but Loomer wants to cover a whole lot more that this. What begins as a cross-cultural examination of medicine's treatment of women turns into a brief against the cancer industry. Loomer's sprawling play tackles a long list of subjects: the alarming rise of breast cancer in recent years, rivalries over breast cancer treatments, collusion between business and government over cancer research, conflicts of interest when hospital board members represent industries whose products may trigger cancer, the validity of alternative treatments, and so on. In fact, there's just about no cancer topic left unturned. The weight of all the information burdens down the overlong, 2-hour play, which Loomer says she wrote in response to her late mother's trial by breast cancer.

Still, the play is full of wonderful moments. Director Chris Wilken does a fine job guiding his cast of 12 through an intricate choreography that travels through time and space. Designer WX's sliding set panels, dressed up as hospital screens, transform the stage's waiting room convincingly into everything from a Chinese tea room to Central Park to a sterile modern hospital.

The play is helped immeasurably by fine performances. Tom Turner plays a doctor of conscience, warmly portraying a character who struggles both to minister to his patients and to battle with the cancer establishment. Patrick Burke is a hoot as a slimeball businessman who stands to profit from a new cancer treatment, if only he can discredit a rival treatment that's far more promising. Nicole Johnson delivers one of the strongest performances as the severe Jamaican nurse who nonetheless cares deeply for her patients.

The trio of female leads are all outstanding. List, a fine comic actress, seems made for the part of a Victorian lady coming to consciousness, getting tripped up along the way by the modern self-help movement. Reed's Wanda is a tough cookie grappling bravely with an unexpected fate. And Pak is heavenly as Forgiveness. A talented actress more accustomed to off-Broadway and Phoenix stages than the Old Pueblo's, she's so good that with a single raised eyebrow or tilt of the head she makes us understand the turmoil roiling underneath her character's repressed, silken exterior.

Borderlands Theater's production of The Waiting Room continues for two more weeks through Sunday, September 7, at the Pima Community College Black Box Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 and $12. For information and reservations, call 882-7406.

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