Mum and the Big C, by Lynne Kamm, is a show ostensibly about cancer, but the themes it’s really interested in tackling are relationships (mother/daughter and romantic) and how defensiveness and a lack of self-esteem can ruin them. Ripley (Elvira Kurt), a young marine biologist who can only find work as a barista, moves to the dreaded suburbs of Mississauga to take care of her mother after her breast cancer diagnosis. Ripley’s mother Donna (Janet Laine-Green), a psychologist, is too busy telling Ripley she needs to find a woman to settle down with in order to keep the right of marriage equality to focus on what’s missing in her own life; a relationship that’s not with married co-worker James (Trevor Hayes, tasked with playing all the male roles, an indication that the play is really about the women). Ripley and her mother has a relationship that could be charitably described as tempestuous, and “caring for her mother” may be taking it a bit far in terms of what actually goes on; “tries not to kill her mother” is perhaps more accurate. But when commitment-averse Ripley sleeps with her mother’s oncologist Maddie (Megan Fahlenbock) under false pretenses, everything gets a lot more complicated.
The play is entertaining and has a professional feel, and the acting is generally good, particularly in some scenes from Laine-Green as Ripley’s mother, whether she is bellowing for childhood Ripley to get over an accident, insulting others in an acid manner, or stoned on anaesthetic. The actors make good use of the space and often leave the stage for the front of the house, which is an entertaining choice. The play’s pat, easy, sitcom style is both its strength (it’s fun and breezy) and its weakness (we could use deeper connections with the characters). As well, each scene feels the need for a cute jokey button that doesn’t necessarily serve the scene well, or robs us of emotion because it forces one character to insult another. The buttons are often delivered in darkness because we don’t even actually get the “beat” due to tech jumping the gun (which is not really tech’s fault, but it emphasizes the strange endings). The buttons actually make the endings of the scenes more awkward, taking me out of the play briefly.
One of the problems with Mum and the Big C is that, while the characters are appealingly funny, none of them are as likeable as the script insinuates they should be. We have to be told that Ripley is kind, caring, determined and good, rather than see it in her behaviour. The playwright is good at barbs, and is clearly having a lot of fun with them, but humanity needs to be developed in balance with the sniping. This is not to say that characters can’t be flawed (some of the most interesting parts of the play deal with the characters’ flaws), or “bad people,” it’s the sudden juxtaposition between the yelling and meanness and deliberate pain-causing and the audience being told to believe these are good characters who deserve everything; there’s a transition between these two states that’s not really there. Some scenes, particularly the one where the mother tries to feed her “pervert” Italian neighbour’s food gift to raccoons, are much meaner than they are funny. This scene is, after all, a reflection of the mother’s defensive neuroses rather than any actual perverted action on the part of her neighbour (or I can only assume, because we never see any); the tension comes from the idea that we are supposed to laugh rather than feel badly that these neuroses exist, particularly because it instantly ruins the tentatively warm connection the two make immediately before, which was hinting at emotional truth. Similarly, there are other moments of seriousness in the play, particularly when the mother reveals her fear of death, but they’re not capitalized on the way they could be.
The show plays with people’s perceptions of each other, and how those perceptions shape our interactions. Some of the most entertaining scenes involve one character telling a second character what a third character has said (with the third character speaking the words), while the second character judges whether that actually sounds like something the third character would say. This lets actors take on each other’s voices in a fun way, and lets us into the psychology of the first character by showing how she chooses to portray others. Interestingly, Maddie the oncologist is really the only character to show accurate reporting; she is also, refreshingly for a character who is there to be a love interest, lacking in stereotype. In terms of language, the show enlightens us as to how many synonyms for breasts there are, and how they are all used as insults. This is something I wish the playwright had dealt with more deeply or commented on, rather than just slinging the insults.
Mum and the Big C is a play that shows promise, if the playwright would follow the road her characters are starting to go down, getting rid of some of the writerly defensive humour for more emotional truth.