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Playwright Jeff Metcalf skillfully avoids both extremes in "A Slight Discomfort," his personal exploration of an encounter with prostate cancer that just opened in Salt Lake Acting Company's Chapel Theatre. Even the play's title reveals Metcalf's ironic, tongue-in-cheek approach to discussing his illness: It's the way his doctor describes how he will feel while undergoing an exploratory cancer biopsy.
Metcalf deftly guides us through the course of his cancer, from detection to surgery, and the radiation that follows when tests reveal residual cancer in his system.
"I'm here because of closet space, ritual and humor," he tells us. Because his wife, Alana, thinks they don't have enough closet space, the family decides to buy a new house. Moving and remodeling preoccupy him so that he misses three medical checkups, allowing the cancer to get started.
Two rituals enable him to maintain his balance during this unsettling time. The first is his obsession with keeping journals. He creates a special cancer journal, which provides a positive outlet for his emotional reactions and also becomes the basis for the play we're seeing.
The second is cooking and eating gourmet food. He channels his anger and frustration about what's happening into concocting sumptuous meals that he shares with his family. Or they go out and have an elegant dinner together.
Most important is the humor. "You have to have a sense of humor to deal with all this," he tells us, and "A Slight Discomfort" remains remarkably upbeat despite its subject. Metcalf etches vivid portraits of the people he meets on his cancer journey, ranging from doctors and other medical personnel to patients. But the cleverest moments are his conversations with various body parts, such as his sphincter and penis, which are even more unhappy about his medical treatment than he is.
Metcalf's able ally in making this material work is actor Paul Kiernan, who displays his versatility. Two abilities serve him particularly well here. First, an unerring sense of timing: He knows when to savor an emotional or comic moment and when to gloss over it to hit the next one.
Then there's his facility with accents and speech patterns. Kiernan creates a range of vivid auxiliary characters, each with its own distinctive mannerisms - from Monica, the overbearing German night nurse, to Bill, a breathless fellow patient dying of lung cancer; from the ominous figure of Death, who keeps popping up in Metcalf's dreams, to his poor beleaguered penis.
Director David Mong adeptly balances the emotional and comic moments and incorporates a few basic props to illustrate Metcalf's experiences. It's amazing what you can do with a simple stool.
"Why me? Why not me? Who's to say? Who's to blame?" Metcalf asks. He hopes the play will remind men to monitor their health and voice their concerns.
One thing cancer has taught him is that "women are not afraid to talk to each other. We keep our emotional cards close to the chest." It's in the dark of this silence that cancer can thrive and triumph.
A Slight Discomfort
Playwright Jeff Metcalf's sense of humor and actor Paul Kiernan's versatile performance keep "A Slight Discomfort" balanced and entertaining despite its serious subject matter.
Where » Chapel Theatre, Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
When » Wednesday; plays through Oct. 19; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 2 and 7
Running time » 80 minutes (no intermission); show contains adult themes and language.
Tickets » $13, available by calling 801-363-SLAC or visiting www.saltlakeacting company.org.