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Wednesday, October 23,2013

Healing through panic

Fighting cancer, Kristine Thatcher sets her priorities straight

by Lawrence Cosentino
Note to non-professionals: Do not try this. In spring 2013, director/actress/playwright Kristine Thatcher was invited to Chicago’s First Folio Theatre to perform in “Underneath the Lintel,” a demanding, 90-minute, one-woman play.

The idea was crazy. Until summer 2012, Thatcher was so busy running two Lansing theaters, first BoarsHead, then Stormfield, that she hadn´t stepped onto a stage for eight years. She had just wrapped up her first round of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

So, of course, she went for it.

A benefit evening to defray Thatcher’s medical bills and living expenses, with a star turn by Mark Twain scholar-impersonator Richard Henzel, is set for Wednesday, Oct. 30. The support of friends like Henzel and erstwhile Stormfield colleagues who organized the event are among the “gifts” Thatcher said “came with cancer,” but there were others.

"I´ve got my priorities nice and straight,” she said. “I don´t tolerate fools as much as I used to. I live in the moment."

Easy to say, but the run-up to opening night last April in Chicago was so stressful Thatcher asked the management to fire her. “More than once,” added First Folio Theatre executive director David Rice.

Each time she asked, Rice recalled, he laughed in her face and said, “I don’t think so.”

In a jittery panic, Thatcher called her health team at Sparrow Hospital. Their answer, in paraphrase, was “What did you expect?” “It was a huge risk for her, but it was just what she needed,” Rice said.

Thatcher scored with audiences and critics as a librarian-turned-metaphysical sleuth who traces a 113-year-overdue book back to the original Wandering Jew. Her Dutch accent alone was stern, funny and sexy. All of her, not just the accent, was nominated for a 2013 Jefferson Award — the top theater awards in Chicago, second nationally to the Tonys — for best solo performance. The awards will be given out Nov. 4.

“I don’t think there is anyone more loved in the Chicago theater community then Kristine,” Rice said.

Thatcher showed the same mettle as director of Lansing´s flagship theater, Boars- Head, from 2005 until its demise in 2009. When BoarsHead imploded, she ran her own theater company, Stormfield, in a leaky building in the Frandor Shopping Center parking lot for three seasons. Stormfield went under in June 2012. Her quixotic quest to keep Equity theater alive in Lansing was over, and that was just as well, because by then she knew she was seriously ill.

It’s too soon for her doctors to say she´s in remission. She knows that about 70 percent of women who get ovarian cancer have to do chemotherapy a second time, and she’s braced for another round.

Meanwhile, she’s not knitting doilies.

Through September and most of October, Thatcher directed Tom Dudzick´s "Miracle on South Division Street" for Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisc.

Now she´s working on two new projects.

Terry McKay of Chicago´s City Lit Theatre has commissioned her to write a play about the turbulent period preceding the U.S. Civil War, to be called "Bloodhound Law.” The other project is close to her heart for a lot of reasons. A Lansing friend, former Wharton Center education director Dana Brazil, is director of education of a new theater, the Dr.

Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in central Florida.

Brazil commissioned Thatcher to interview cancer patients and write a narrative based on their lives. The project is inspired by one of Thatcher´s heroes, Dr. Rita Charon, proponent of "narrative medicine," which throws open the examining room to take into account a patient’s whole life story.

Thatcher talks about her cancer with dry eyes, but they moisten when she talks about Charon´s work. Empathy for other people´s stories has always driven Thatcher´s work. The Charon project is like a Grand Unified Theory for her, connecting two healing disciplines, drama and medicine.

On mornings when Thatcher feels daunted by the trials ahead, the sheer juiciness of projects like "Bloodhound Law" and the Charon project get her going.

There are other inducements, too.

Thatcher is still fuming over Sarah Palin´s recent comment comparing the Affordable Health Care Act with the subject of “Bloodhound Law,” the Fugitive Slave Act.

"The Fugitive Slave Act compelled northerners to return slaves," she said. "For her to compare those two laws … it´s crazy."

Where is Thatcher’s favorite author, Mark Twain, scourge of dolts and demagogues, when you need him? Thanks to Thatcher and Henzel, he’s coming to the rescue, in more ways than one.

“Mark Twain´s All Hallows’ Eve” with Richard Henzel

Benefit for the Kristine Thatcher Fund 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30 Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Dr., Lansing $25 Event info (517) 490-0481; tickets (800) 838-3006 ktfund.org

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