When Sam Simon’s wife, Susan, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, he began having visions. The long-time consumer affairs advocate, who began his career with Ralph Nader’s first legal advocacy group back in 1970, had been exploring theater for the past two decades, performing with Temple Rodef Shalom Players, McLean Drama Company, Great Falls Players and other community-based companies.
The Actual Dance, about his journey during his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, is his first play. Part dramatic monologue, part therapeutic catharsis, with a few awkward and inartful moments of waltzing thrown in, The Actual Dance delves into the experiences Simon had as his wife battled breast cancer beginning in the spring of 2000.
The 60-minute performance features an original score composed and performed by Eli Katz Zoller on guitar, accompanied by Stephanie Herman on cello.
On stage through Sunday, at 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, the evening begins with Simon approaching the stage from a theater seat. He describes in detail an imaginary ballroom where an orchestra plays for dancers who come for their very last dance. It’s a dance of survival and capitulation, of joy and sorrow, of life, and death.
It’s a dance that includes everyone the dancer has ever met during a lifetime of experiences, relationships, friendships and acquaintances. The metaphoric dance Simon envisions alludes to the final steps he could face as his wife struggles through doctors’ visits, invasive treatments and all-around bad days with a questionable prognosis.
As a performer, Simon lacks the charisma and facility to imbue his script with the artistry and richness it deserves. Instead, he draws the audience into his tale of love and valor in coming to terms with his wife’s cancer battle through a banal bluntness in the recitation of his feelings and thoughts.
Long-time members of Temple Rodef Shalom, Simon and his wife sought out their rabbi for advice, but in the play the rabbi was preoccupied with her own family obligations, even when Susan was facing a double mastectomy.
A moment later, Simon offers up a heartfelt but off-key rendition of singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman’s “Mi Sheberach” prayer for healing. Following the performance, Simon and his wife, Susan, answered questions during a moderated discussion for the small audience.
He noted that everything in the solo performance was “dramatized but not fictionalized.” Asked about his writing process after the show, he noted, “So much of this is intuitive to me.
There’s both beauty and destiny in love, and this isn’t a play about death, but about love.” He added, “In every engagement, the dance is unique and there is no right or wrong in how one feels in this situation. We dance by ourselves and we dance with partners. While I have not been critically ill, each of us has his own experience with illness.”
Asked about how his wife dealt with her husband’s dramatic explorations during her illness, Susan said about her husband, “We didn’t talk a lot about it because of fear of what will happen when we are alone.”
The show, which is self-produced, will move forward to an off-off-Broadway run in New York in January 2015, according to Simon, who has the support and involvement of both his wife and his daughter, Rachel Simon Proper, who moderated the post-performance discussion.
While many may feel that The Actual Dance with its journey through breast cancer could be depressing, Simon Proper acknowledged it has not only been therapeutic for her father in putting him and his wife on the path of emotional healing, it has also sparked interest and discussion from others about the challenges of dealing with devastating illnesses.
It became a means for him and his wife to dip themselves into uncharted waters as they learned and deepened their connection as a couple during a trying time.
The production is a perfect vehicle for support groups, retreat centers and women’s clubs that provide programming to suit a variety of needs.
Susan Simon is today cancer free, and the long-married couple are dancing once more to the music of life.
The Actual Dance will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at 1st Stage Tysons, 1524 Spring Hill Rd, McLean. Tickets $20 ($5 of every ticket sold will be donated to the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer).
Visit www.1stStageTysons.org for tickets and information.