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Review: Local playwright’s ‘Red Jasper’ takes intimate and honest look at life, love and cancer

(Ken Jacques)

The production of Michael Madden’s world premiere play closed Sunday at Lamplighters Community Theatre

Michael Madden’s new play “Red Jasper” is about a senior couple who fall in love as the woman is battling an advanced case of breast cancer.

That may not sound like a fun afternoon at the theater, but the two-hour play that closed its run with a Sunday matinee at Lamplighters Community Theatre in La Mesa was surprisingly funny, clever, touching and entertaining. The San Diego playwright wrote, directed and produced this month’s world premiere.

The play takes place over a nine-day period after widowed retiree Tom (a charming Duane Weekly) meets divorcée Isadora (the fiery and authentic Lana Hartwell) in the infusion center of a small medical clinic. Tom is there for a course of antibiotics, and Isadora goes daily for her chemotherapy infusions. She fought and beat cancer four years before, but the disease has come back with a vengeance, and its return has made her depressed and angry.

Although their first meeting is disastrous, Tom and “Izzy” gradually warm to each other as they sit in side-by-side recliners bonding over their shared love for “Star Trek,” modern dance and esoteric arts. Under the watchful eye of infusion nurse Abby (a sweet Shelley Benoit), their love blooms, but their sudden romance infuriates Tom’s adult daughter, Samantha (Kylie Young, in an emotional performance), who believes her dad abandoned her mother before she passed away months earlier in an Alzheimer’s care center.

The play’s title refers to the polished quartz crystal that Tom gives Izzy. Red jasper is believed to have healing properties.

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(Ken Jacques)

To better understand the lives of breast cancer patients, Madden interviewed more than 40 survivors of the disease in San Diego. His depiction of Izzy’s state of mind, her fears and suffering, her chemo-related hair loss and the insensitive and cruel comments and questions she receives from others feels very real.

Izzy tells Tom she’s tired of receiving casseroles in place of real visits from her son or friends; tired of people calling her “brave” or a “hero” and offering tips on miracle cures; tired of questions about what kind of cancer she has or what stage it’s in; and tired of people staring at her chest when they learn she has breast cancer.

The play has its dark and sad moments in the second act, but Madden’s saucy and sarcastic sense of humor lifts many of the scenes between Tom and Izzy. Madden also has a knack for writing natural and funny dialogue that doesn’t sound scripted. The play’s final scene plays with the “Star Trek” concept of teleportation. It’s an original idea, but onstage it felt tacked-on and overlong and could use a minor rework.

The production featured costumes and scenic design by Madden, lighting by Paul Ericson, sound by Bob Eisele and makeup by Pam Stompoly-Ericson who created a realistic bald head look for Izzy.

Madden hopes to take “Red Jasper” to other theaters around the country in future years. His first play, the 2015 romantic comedy “Maybe This Time,” has been produced in San Diego and at four other theaters around the country. Having seen both, I think “Red Jasper” is a much stronger play, and I expect it will have a long life in future years.


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