By Jim Rutter for The Inquirer
Writers used to lead such interesting lives. Fomenting rebellions (Bakunin, Mishima), fighting wars (Hemingway, Orwell), exploring exotic lands (Freya Stark), committing felonies (Mark Read, Gregory David Roberts). These authors embodied the exceptional; a one-person show would no doubt focus on their unique personalities and adventures.
Deb Margolin’s 8 Stops, a gentle, powerful meditation on mortality now in its world premiere at the Kimmel Center, would not fall into that category. Her 70-minute piece, by contrast, exemplifies the ordinary in an age where the ordinary person winds up with cancer.
Diagnosed in her early 40s with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, 8 Stops juxtaposes stories of her treatment with reenacted scenes of trying to raise a young son tormented by theories of death and the afterlife. Alternatingly funny and poignant, it glides over little triumphs of small-town life (befriending a batty neighbor, forgiving the block bully).
Margolin never attempts to deny or defend these first world crises; instead she ridicules her home in Montvale, NJ (not a mountain or a valley, but with a median income of over six figures) and gives self-deprecating pet-names to the medusa’s head of tubes that pump poisons into her body.
In the plastic curtain-lined space of Dara Wishingrad’s cancer ward set, Thom Weaver’s delicate lighting guides us in location and emotion (a posh suburban party, a child’s bedroom, the claustrophobia of a subway tunnel). Jay Wahl’s direction blends dark and light humor to modulate Margolin’s morbid musings.
Her acting shifts easily from the presentational-style of a college professor to the righteous fury of the condemned. What she achieves defies the ordinary and transcends the mundane.
“Is ambition an immune response to mortality” she asks. And against that idea, Margolin weaves a theme of grief tempered by compassion as the only valid reply to life’s brief span.
Live and eventually die she will, but mother she must: to her own children, the neighbor’s kids, to the random, semi-orphaned boy on the subway that lends the piece its title. Her boundless compassion finds outlet in the maternal, and in an age that vilifies the stay-at-home caregiver over the working woman, she elevates this commonplace tale to the level of heroism.
No wars fought, no governments overthrown, but lives definitely redeemed, and these transformed, by Margolin’s wit and playfulness. To be and to mother, may not be for all, but in her disarming piece, the choice is never to yield when one can continue to care, in that necessary, so ordinary fashion that only a mother provides.