In the wake of losing my mother to lung cancer just after Thanksgiving, one of the last things I wanted to do was see a play about a woman fighting the cursed disease. But Eve Ensler’s daring, delightful one-woman show, In the Body of the World, which opened tonight at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at City Center, is bursting with the affirmation of life and the celebration of joy. In 2010, the Tony- and Obie-winning writer of The Vagina Monologues and The Treatment was diagnosed with cancer; she first wrote about it in her 2013 memoir, In the Body of the World, which she has now successfully adapted for the stage. Ensler divides the eighty-minute performance, directed with flair by two-time Tony winner Diane Paulus (Pippin, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), into three sections, “Somnolence,” “Burning,” and “Second Wind,” as she honestly and often poetically talks about her childhood and her family and relates her cancer to things much bigger than herself. “A mother’s body against a child’s body makes a place. It says you are here. I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a young age and I got lost,” she says at the beginning. “For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the earth. I guess you could say it’s a preoccupation.” Ensler strides about Myung Hee Cho’s set, consisting of a wooden chair, a credenza with an altar/cabinet on top, and a chaise longue, which serves as Ensler’s loft, her hospital room, and her hotel room in what she calls Cancer Town, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Ensler, a twice-divorced vegetarian and activist who was fifty-six at the time of her diagnosis, had stopped drinking in her twenties and quit smoking in her thirties, so the cancer came as somewhat of a shock, especially when she learned she would have to have her “mother parts,” her uterus, cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and some of her vagina, removed. “Do you have any idea who I am? Do you have any fucking sense of irony?” she tells the doctor.
Ensler exposes her body and her soul as she goes through chemo and becomes involved in the creation of City of Joy, a community of women survivors of rape and violence in Bukavu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, run by Dr. Denis Mukwege and Mama C, aka Christine Schuler-Deschryver. (The amazing work they do is documented in Madeleine Gavin’s extraordinary 2016 film, City of Joy.) Ensler says that Dr. Mukwege “was literally sewing up the vaginas of rape survivors as fast as the militias were tearing them apart. . . . There were hundreds of these stories. They all began to bleed together. The destruction of vaginas. The pillaging of minerals. The raping of the earth. But inside these stories of unspeakable violence, inside the women, was a determination and a life force I had never witnessed.” Refusing to feel sorry for herself, Ensler reexamines her place in the greater world, continually working to teach people to stop sleepwalking through life and start taking responsibility for themselves and others, using this stage as a wake-up call for all of us.
Occasionally projections by Finn Ross cover the stage and the back wall, depicting protests, scenes of nature, people at City of Joy, certain key words, and a tree that deeply impacts Ensler’s recovery. She sometimes flirts with new agey ideas and twelve-step jargon — and she tries to get everyone up and dancing at one point in a rather goofy moment — but, being Eve Ensler, she also finds time to briefly fire away at political and social injustice. And then, at the end, she offers a magical surprise that every audience member should experience instead of rushing to get home; I wouldn’t dare give it away, but you can get a look at what it is here if you can’t help yourself. Ensler, a New York City native, is also a founder of V-Day, “a global activist movement to end violence against women and girls” that in 2018 is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of The Vagina Monologues with special events on and around Valentine’s Day. This year’s V-Day motto is “Rise, Resist, Unite,” which is also the route Ensler took in her fight against cancer, as depicted in this warm and very funny performance. I wish my mother were around to have experienced it for herself.