YOU GOT OLDER – Written by Clare Barron; Directed by Neil Truglio. Produced by Benchmark Theatre Company (1560 Teller Street, Lakewood) through March 16. Tickets available at 

The published synopsis of this script did not prepare this audience member for what was shown. “A woman goes home to care for her father and to fix herself.” It did not prepare the audience for the walk through Cancerland and the family dynamic it so often revitalizes. With only slight variations, this was the story of my last 15 months. The variation being that I went home to take care of my daughter instead of the more normal arrangement portrayed in the show. So, this was a little too close to my heart for objectivity. 

Clare Barron wrote so tellingly of this experience because she went through a form of it herself. A break-up with a long-time boyfriend who then – because he was her boss – had to fire her too. Reeling from these changes in her life, she then got the news that her father had cancer and went home to take care of him. Her own feelings and fantasies fueled the character of Mae’s inner life in the script. The uncertainty – the hanging on to the slightest optimistic remark from the doctors – the loneliness of a caregiver – the occasional joy of a supportive family – the looking back and looking forward. A young woman, Mae (Courtney Esser) feels strongly the absence of a man in her bed, indulging in romantic novel-like fantasies with a rough-hued cowboy who goes from hero to predator in the blink of an eye. Orion Carrington fits the bill of this big bad boy beautifully. 

The script is realistically written to proclaim those moments of triumph in her father’s journey. The rite of passage that signals the end of treatment is one significant stop along the way to recovery for many. Each chemo lab has a gong that the patient gets to ring raucously to announce an ending and the start of a new phase. The joy that Dad (Marc Stith) and all cancer patients feel at that moment was contagious as portrayed by Mae, her father and her siblings.  

Courtney Esser navigates the knife’s edge between panic and patience with the grace of a tight rope walker. She expresses the inevitable awkwardness of returning home to the familiar yet foreign new set of circumstances. She is now supposed to be strong for her father who has always been the strong one. Marc Stith, always a bear of a man in every sense of the word (from teddy to grizzly) in the parts he plays, displays a gentleness and hesitancy that reveals his own confusion over this new state of affairs. Christopher Berghoff enters the scene as Mae seeks relief in a local bar when he mistakes her for her sister and tries to renew a friendship he never really had with her. But their mutual angst unites them and leads to yet another awkward scene in her bedroom. Mae’s siblings (James Giordano, Lauren Bahlman and Jacqueline Hahn) gather to wait by Dad’s bedside after an operation to remove the cancer. They display the easy familiarity of family with shared memories and grudges. They are here for Dad but it’s obvious they all have lives outside the hospital room, where Mae at this point does not. 

Benchmark’s on-the-small-side playing space works to accommodate the demands of the script by providing a small garden, Mae’s bedroom, a hospital room, a tavern, a back porch and the space for a long distance phone call. While utilizing all the space efficiently, the movement into and out of the different scenes broke the rhythm and continuity of the action of the play. The credit for the light and sound design which greatly enhanced the production goes to uncredited members of the company. 

The cast brings all the joy and humor they can to this set of circumstances. Old friendships (sort of) are renewed; siblings unite over a family difficulty; decisions are made about the future. But cancer has his own surprises. And, yes, cancer’s gender is male. At the time of the first production of the play in 2014, Barron’s father was still in remission after four years. I hope he made it through the next ten. I’m told by Benchmark personnel that people who have had cancer in their lives are either comforted by the happy scene at the end or angered by the outcome. Just be forewarned that it’s a tough yet tender two hours. 

A WOW factor of 8.5!! 

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