'Tough Titty'

There's no brave smiling through tears for the heroine of the bluntly titled "Tough Titty," whose breast cancer diagnosis begins years of debilitating treatments, side effects and sheer exasperation.

There’s no brave smiling through tears for the heroine of the bluntly titled “Tough Titty,” whose breast cancer diagnosis begins years of debilitating treatments, side effects and sheer exasperation. She is angry– at God, at doctors, at everyone. That flintiness drives this vividly personal play by Oni Faida Lampley, who died last spring after her own 13-year battle with cancer. Too spirited to be the downer one might expect given its tight thematic focus, and well-served by Robert O’Hara’s Magic Theater staging, Lampley’s work should have a long life ahead, particularly on stages tuned toward women’s and African American issues.

First glimpsed as a Catholic school seventh-grader brokering a deal in prayer with the Lord — she’ll be good when she’s old (like 30) if she gets to have some fun until then — Angela (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) is next seen at age 37, when neither party seems to have kept their part of the bargain.

Angela has been just scaping by, raising two boys in a tiny Brooklyn flat with husband Shaka (Adrian Roberts), who doesn’t have a “real job.” But then, neither does she –although their creative/professional pursuits are in fact kept a little too vague here. The last thing they need is the news that a lump the still-breastfeeding mother assumed was clotted milk is actually a malignant tumor.

Angela rages at the injustice in ways alternately humorous, corrosive and just plain garrulous. Why her? There’s no family history of cancer; her lifestyle is healthy to an obsessive degree. She agrees to a mastectomy despite mixed support on that decision from her husband, mother (Michele Shay) and friends.

But the surgery doesn’t end the crisis; it’s just the first chapter. After intermission we jump seven years forward, and find Angela bobbing in a sea of drug regimes, chemo reactions, hip trouble, sleeplessness, endless invasive test procedures, fuzzed memory, even choking incidents.

The majority of household and parenting duties now his alone, Shaka is losing patience, and nothing he does seems quite good enough for Angela.

All this indeed sounds like hard work, but Lampley’s voice and Gregory’s performance are too combative to let “Tough Titty” sink into self-pity. While sometimes her heroine’s rants threaten to turn this multicharacter drama into a monologue, Lampley gives them zest, variety and enough humor to avoid a dirge effect, and the scenes with medical professionals are particularly well-drawn.

Less successful are fantasy moments when Angela interacts with St. Agatha (Jeri Lynn Cohen), whose purported sufferings included the severing of her breasts. However, their final scene together — in which saint chastises heroine, “You’d make a horrible martyr,” and prompts a new acceptance of her condition — does pay off.

O’Hara’s fluid staging deploys unfussy design elements, with the hardworking cast providing most cultural and locational detailing themselves.

Tough Titty

Magic Theater, San Francisco; 154 seats; $45 top

Production

A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Oni Faida Lampley. Directed by Robert O'Hara.

Creative

Set, Caleb Levengood; costumes, Jessica Jahn; lighting, Kurt Landisman; sound, Sara Huddleston; production stage manager, Karen Szpaller. Opened Jan. 31, 2009. Reviewed Feb. 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

With: Elizabeth Carter, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Lily Tung Crystal, Kimberly Hebert Gregory, Edward Nattenberg, Adrian Roberts, Michele Shay.
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