Cancer — A six letter word that has the ability to leave even the toughest people speechless, and after watching Tustin High School perform “Chemo Girl and Other Plays” I can see why.
The Little Theater was packed on Friday, March 28 as everyone hurried to find an open seat for the last night of “Chemo Girl.” The crowd was so big that folding chairs had to be placed in the aisles to fit the audience inside. Excitement buzzed with murmurs and whispers of the crowd until, at long last, the lights dimmed. Mrs. Lloyd, the drama teacher at Tustin High, gave a quick thank you to the crowd and took time to introduce the writer of the play, Christian Kiley, and the founders of MaxLove, a charity foundation for children with cancer, both of whom were in attendance that night. The crowd clapped their welcome, and with that, the lights fell and the play began.
In the first play, Alondra Lucatero played Holly, a girl with an imaginary friend. Her imaginary friend named Lucy, played by Anabel Carillo, personified her chemotherapy treatment and how it both hurt and helped her. Alondra Lucatero’s interpretation of Holly was masterfully done. Her quick wit and fluid transition through Holly’s rapidly changing emotions was excellently countered by Anabel’s ability to portray a character with never ceasing optimism in the face of struggle. The side effects, played by Hayley Difede, Joseph Adams, Kristina Barrett, Anthony Henderson, Natalie Stieler, Daphne Rosas, and Sol Guanes showed a shocking reality of chemotherapy effects. Their performance is hallowing, and the audience could practically feel the panic that set in on Holly.
In the second play, the scene falls on five teenagers in a waiting room. Sol Guanes’ character, Faith opens the play, being her general overly happy self. Hayley Difede, who’s character is openly gruff and violent, loves to pick on Faith. The banter between the two actors is fabulous, but the real interaction seems to come between Hayley and Jonathan Deprosse. Jonathan’s character is an introverted geeky type, and spends the whole play setting up Hayley for jab after jab at his interests. Kristina Barrett, who plays a girl who discovers that her cancer clock is ticking, shows us her true colors as she pours her soul into the anguish of facing death at such a young age. Anthony Henderson plays a boy whose clock has already reached zero, and his ability to connect so naturally with Kristina and her struggle left the audience speechless.
In the third play, Juan Romero plays a father and husband with cancer. His son Tommy, played by Joseph Adams, loves his father. Joseph’s ability to meld himself seamlessly into such a young character is truly astounding. Natalie Stieler seems to resent her father from the beginning of the play, but as time wears on, Natalie skillfully reveals her true feelings of fear without ever saying so. Jacqueline Resendiz seems to fit into the maternal parent character naturally. She plays a woman far older than herself excellently, and it left some of us wondering how old she really is to be able to portray the maturity she did. Each of the characters had their own memory moment with Juan, and he could not have performed better. He was the sporty father, the romantic husband, and the emotional connection for each of them, and he was the final piece that brought many members of the audience to tears, especially as he walked away to his “healing forest” leaving his family behind.
The last play of the night was Chemo Girl. Leah Baltes, who played a teen girl with cancer named Camille, showed us all what a cancer patient is really like. Her mother, played by Taleeah Ponce, buys her a video game to give her something to do. After dealing with Joseph Adams, a mysterious and annoying character that refuses to help Leah, she spends the entire time trying to find her way, and at last does. She shows us all courage as an actor throughout, and when the play concludes, she drops a metaphorical atom bomb on the crowd by proclaiming loudly that she is now cancer free.
At this, the crowd bursts into applause and the group of students walks to the forefront of the stage to take their bows. Each one in turn smiles at the roaring crowd, and you can tell by the looks on their faces that they are proud.
Senior Leah Baltes comes to the front of the crowd and calls up Mrs. Lloyd. The students take the time to thank her for all her hard work, and give her a bouquet of flowers. Mrs. Lloyd thanks them with tears of pride, and then the students call up their next guests. First, the writer of Chemo Girl, Christian Kiley, then the founders MaxLove, along with Max and his sister. The students give each of them a small cactus, a gift to represent living through hard conditions. With thanks, the writer and the founders graciously accept their gifts. Kiley’s last words to the students were that it is rare for a writer to learn something from his own work, but that the students managed to do it. Max’s mother is invited to tell the crowd more about MaxLove, and she gives everyone details about her struggle and her son’s struggle through his disease. Her stories were enough to bring tears to the eyes of everyone in the crowd, and after pointing us to the table they had set up outside, they ended the show.
These plays were all used to show the audience firsthand what it is like to deal with cancer, whether it be handling the disease personally or through a family member. While the plays are exuberant and occasionally silly, the actors pour their souls into their work. By doing this, the actors cause the audience to feel the horror, the love, and the fear of going through this terrible disease. They open up the hearts of the audience. It could not be put into words properly the devotion and respect the cast put into their characters.
Chemo Girl was truly a magical play, and everyone in the audience left the Little Theater with a feeling that they could never have found anywhere else. To Christian Kiley, the play was a wonderful and thought provoking piece of art. To Mrs. Lloyd, it is obvious that she has led these students in a way that no one else could. To the cast, congratulations on three nights of beautiful acting. We are all waiting to see what you all come up with next.