By Harriet P. Gross
One day recently, I had an email from Marion Garmel, an Indianapolis resident with whom I became acquainted last year in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the National Federation of Press Women’s annual conference.
“I’m in Dallas for a big family reunion,” she told me. “And as part of the event, my brother, who has written a one-man play, is opening it to the public. Knowing you are interested in writing about Jewish activities and theater, I thought you might want to see it.”
The next afternoon, I was seated in a meeting room turned into a makeshift small theater in the Westin Park Central, watching Sam Simon perform “The Actual Dance.” He has already done so at a number of venues including the Midtown International Theatre Festival in New York and the Fringe in Washington, D.C., which is his home.
The subject matter is grim: How does a man react when his wife is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer? But my father of blessed memory, a truly caring physician, always used to say, “Take whatever you get, and do the best you can with it.” Sam has done just that with a real-life story, that of himself and his wife Susan.
Sam almost literally waltzes out in front of his audience, setting an imaginary stage. He shares his vision of a grand ballroom in which an orchestra is starting to play someone’s special song. And as that someone, with partner, begins to move, Sam realizes that this is the someone’s last dance — the actual end of that someone’s life. Watching Sam, I could see the ballroom, hear the musicians tuning up and picture the dancers stepping onto the floor. …
This is not a stereotypically stoic man. Sam is raw emotion as he recounts, in words and movements, the course of Susan’s illness; the unexpected discovery of the cancer and the unrelenting cheerfulness of “Dr. Happy,” which finally flags when the doctor has to admit to a misread biopsy. Susan’s lymph nodes were indeed highly involved, and disease remained despite the double mastectomy. Sam is not afraid to cry in public.
The grimness is there, of course. But its influence dims as Sam plays out his role in all that happens when devastation strikes a loving, long-married couple: Susan’s suffering, and his sharing in it. They hold hands in their synagogue when her name is read out on the Mishebeirach list for the first time, and people ask what’s wrong. Sam discovers, and admits, that Susan is the stronger of the two of them in this new, undesired situation. He suffers with her, for her.
But in the end, when Sam hears the musicians tuning up again, this time for his and Susan’s favorite song — for their actual last dance together — something happens. The ballroom dissolves away. They do not take the floor. And there, now, in real life, is Susan: the healthy survivor, sitting and smiling in the back of that makeshift theater.
The two met as teenagers at a BBYO convention, married young, had children and lived through breast cancers that assailed members of both their families. Yet, they had never anticipated this for themselves. Susan’s ordeal began 13 years ago. Sam, the fourth child in a family of five, is now past retirement age and able to tour “The Actual Dance” full time. The play’s next stop will be Indianapolis, where his performance will open Hadassah’s 2013-2014 program year. Working the minimal audio effects (some bits of music, the sound of footsteps in a hospital corridor) will be my networking friend Marion Simon Garmel, the actor’s oldest sibling.
As I write this, I’m preparing to leave for Salt Lake City, site of this year’s NFPW conference. It will be a pleasure to see Marion again. Maybe, sometime in the future, I can do something good for her.Tweet