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 no doubt would focus on their unique personalities and adventures.
Deb Margolin's 8 Stops, a gentle, powerful meditation on mortality given its world premiere Thursday through Saturday at the Kimmel Center's SEI Innovation Studio, doesn't fall into that category. Instead, her 70-minute piece examines the ordinary, when the ordinary person winds up with cancer.
Margolin - a writer, performance artist, and professor - was diagnosed in her early 40s with Hodgkin's lymphoma; 8 Stops juxtaposes stories of her treatment with scenes of trying to raise a young son tormented by theories of death and the afterlife. Alternately funny and poignant, it glides over little triumphs of small-town life (befriending a batty neighbor, forgiving a bully).
In her solo work, refined during Innovation's inaugural 2013-14 theater residency, Margolin never attempts to deny or defend these first-world crises; instead, she mocks her affluent town of Montvale, N.J., 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 both 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 the college professor she is 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. Against that idea, Margolin weaves a theme of grief tempered by compassion as the only valid response to life's brief span.
Live and eventually die she will, but mother she must: her own children; the neighbor's kids; 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 when some look askance at the stay-at-home caregiver, she elevates her commonplace tale to the level of heroism.