Caring for a loved one who is terminally ill is one of the most agonizing things that a person can do. For Samuel Simon, a lawyer turned playwright who is now performing his one-man play, “The Actual Dance,” his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis launched both members of the couple on a harrowing journey into the workings of the human heart.
In addition to taking a rarely seen male perspective on a disease that afflicts mostly women, the show, which is running on weekends only through Sunday, Feb. 1 at The Studio Theater on Theater Row, presents a husband’s perspective on his desperate attempts to nurse his wife back to health — or, if that fails, to guide her through the final stage of her life. (Spoiler alert: She made a miraculous recovery.)
Directed by Kate Holland, “The Actual Dance” ($26.25; telecharge.com) traces the changes that were triggered in a 34-year marriage when Solomon’s wife, Susan, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2000. The play takes place in two settings, that of the hospital room/doctor’s office and that of an imaginary hotel ballroom where a waltz gets out of control. In a flashback, Solomon revisits the trauma of his mother’s death, also from breast cancer, in 1973. Onstage, musicians perform the original music, by Eli Zoller, that Solomon commissioned for the piece.
The playwright was a protégé of consumer rights crusader Ralph Nader in the early 1970s, before launching his own public relations consulting firm to sensitize large corporations to the needs of their diverse customer base. He told The Jewish Week that “The Actual Dance,” which is his first play, is about “finding integrity in the most difficult task of life.” Convinced that his wife was going to die, because she met the criteria for Stage 3 cancer in three different ways, Simon found that one of the hardest things for him was supporting Susan without having her worry about how he was dealing with the stress of her illness. “I needed to be a rock for her,” he said.
The couple disagreed about where Susan should seek treatment. Although they live in Northern Virginia, Simon wanted to take her to a place that did cutting-edge treatment, such as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., or the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md. “People were clawing to get into those places,” he said.
But Susan insisted on being closer to home at the Inova Fairfax Hospital, a community hospital that treats a large number of cancer patients. Solomon reluctantly acceded to his wife’s wishes. “I’m used to being in charge; I ran my own company and couldn’t work for someone else. But now, instead of being the director, I needed to be the supporter and let her make the decisions about her own care. It created another whole level of friction between us.”
The couple has belonged for many years to Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Falls Church, where both husband and wife have served as president. They are also both on the Board of Overseers of Hebrew Union College (HUC) in New York. Inevitably, they immediately fell back on Jewish ritual as a source of support. At one point in the show, Simon chants the “Mi Sheberakh,” Debbie Friedman’s prayer for healing that has increasingly moved from the synagogue into a variety of health care settings.
“The Actual Dance” has been especially enlightening for medical professionals and rabbis who get a glimpse into the psyches of patients and their caregivers. In performing it at the University of Arkansas School of Nursing, the Hudson Valley Health Alliance, and other similar venues, Solomon was told by audience members that the play enabled them to be more sensitive to their patients’ needs.
When he performed “The Actual Dance” as the closing event of a breast imaging conference at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Simon heard audible sobbing from the radiologists, oncologists, and others in attendance. Dr. Jennifer Harvey, who runs the hospital’s breast imaging center, told him when a patient receives a call with a cancer diagnosis, he or she typically remembers every detail of that moment — the date, time, place, sights and smells. But the doctor might forget a week later that he or she ever placed that call.
“It’s so important for me to be a vehicle for the doctor to understand the illness from the patient’s perspective,” Simon said. Among the most gratifying comments was one that came from a woman who saw the play in New York and told him that she had recently lost both of her parents. “The play gave me a whole new frame to understand what we went through,” she told him.
Rabbi Nancy Wiener directs the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Care at HUC, where Simon did a preview of the play for her pastoral counseling class. The budding rabbis learned, she told The Jewish Week, that helping the family members of a loved one who is sick may be just as important as working with the patient. “Rabbis often ask how the ill person is doing without checking in with the family members,” she said. “Sam was able to set the stage for the kind of experience that they will encounter in their work. The rabbinic students were able to hear what caregivers may be thinking, but is rarely verbalized.”
Indeed, “The longer an illness lasts,” Rabbi Wiener noted, “the more likely it is that the patient is the only one who gets asked any questions.” While Jewish tradition teaches the importance of bringing meals and offering emotional support to caregivers, she reflected, “American society doesn’t speak the same language of doing a mitzvah for those grappling with a loved one’s serious medical condition.”