by Len Lear
Breast cancer survivor Susan Chase of Mt. Airy may be 50-ish, but in “Susan’s Undoing,” a show she wrote and will perform for the upcoming Philadelphia Fringe Arts Festival, she will climb ropes and a ladder blindfolded, dangle and literally defy gravity.
She will demonstrate that not only is cancer not necessarily a death sentence but that it is possible to come back stronger than ever. Susan’s skirmishes with life, death, doctors and well-intentioned friends veer from harrowing to hilarious. An uplifting story, in battling death Susan learns how to live in “Susan’s Undoing.”
According to Dr. Lee Riley, Medical Director at St. Luke’s Cancer Center in Bethlehem, “Chase is a formidable stage presence; a dancer, acrobat, comedienne and touching dramatic heroine. She takes the audience from laughter to tears, from harsh reality to gentle sentimentality many times over.”
“Susan’s Undoing” evolved from the journal entries Chase wrote to “maintain her sanity” during the greatest challenge of her life. Chase was a professional ballerina before she was stricken with cancer in 2002. Her loss of physical abilities and self-image was deep and painful because so much of her prior identity was tied to her physical abilities.
“Two years after completing my treatment,” she explained, “I was fragile and still had not recovered, emotionally or physically. I discovered that the hardest part of fighting cancer was ‘after’ I had been pronounced ‘cured.’
“Throughout my ordeal, I was shocked to discover that friends and family glibly told me to ‘be positive’ and ‘keep a good attitude.’ My journal entries, and eventually my play, were a direct response to a popular culture in which survivors of trauma, be it physical or mental, are told to ‘keep their feelings to themselves.’”
Whether railing against the medical system, lighting candles to nourish her soul or embodying her personal nightmare, a future as a cantankerous old crone, Chase speaks directly to her audience. There is no attempt at impartial “realism.” Through dance, monologue, video sequences and visual imagery, the plot unfolds to reveal her experiences — surprising, riveting and frequently bawdily humorous.
Implicit in “Susan’s Undoing” is the belief that finding one’s voice and telling one’s story has value. In bringing this play to the Fringe Festival, Susan hopes that telling her story may improve the quality of life of those in the audience, encourage others to tell their stories and possibly even save their lives.
Chase previously played the role of Isadora Duncan, “The Mother of Modern Dance,” in a play called “When She Danced” that she performed at Allens Lane Art Center in West Mt. Airy in May of this year.
A recent transplant to our area, Chase spent the past 15 years in the Lehigh Valley, where she worked as an actress, director and playwright with the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, Muhlenberg College, Lafayette College, Cedar Crest College and Lehigh University.
Having been a professional dancer for most of her life, Chase first got involved with acting during her college years. (She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Brandeis University and a masters in education from Lehigh University.) “Over the years I’ve acted, directed, choreographed and continued to dance,” she explained, “but being able to both dance and act brings me the greatest pleasure.”
Chase has performed at such venues as Washington’s Smithsonian Museum, the International Theatre Festival in Santiago Chile, New York’s Lincoln Center, in Philadelphia at The Painted Bride and at the Baltimore Theatre Project, among others.
“’Susan’s Undoing’ is my story,” she said, “and it’s a horrible, traumatic part of my life. I was diagnosed 12 years ago, but it’s interesting that even when the doctor told me I was cured, I didn’t feel cured until I wrote this play. It became my own way of expressing myself to myself and then finally feeling I was cured…
“But you can never really have peace of mind because there are no tests to prove that you do not have cancer. There are only tests to prove that you do have cancer. If tests do not show cancer, it may only mean that you have not reached the threshold that would produce a showing of the cancer.”
Since Chase wrote the play for herself, she could incorporate dance and acting. “I never thought I’d find another role like the one I created for myself, but along came the role of Isadora Duncan. How many roles ask you to use both talents? Not very many. So I was absolutely thrilled that this one came along, not only to mark my Allens Lane debut but my Philadelphia debut as well.”
Today, Chase feels the need to create another one-woman show, and she thinks she’s found the perfect subject. “I’ve been looking for a historical figure to base it on, and it might just turn out to be Isadora Duncan. Whereas ‘When She Danced’ depicts only a day in the life of Isadora, I’d love to explore her whole, fantastic life.”
Performances of “Susan’s Undoing” will take place at Studio 1831, 1831 Brandywine St. in Fairmount, seven times between Sept. 5 and 14 and at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. in center city, four times between Sept. 18 and 21. Tickets are $15. See an excerpt at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eyw_lXJ9ag. For tickets, call 215-413-1318 or visit FringeArts.com.