Sitting beside me at Onion Skin, a dramatic comedy by Dara Padwo-Audick about the scourge of skin cancer, was a woman whose father had died of melanoma that started in his toe. “He loved the beach,” she sighed. “Who thinks to put sunscreen on their toes?! The doctors gave him only five months, but he lived another five years. Still, it wasn’t enough.”
Never is. And that encounter with a stranger put me in the proper dour mood to digest Onion Skin — theater advocacy at full tilt.
If the goal of co-directors Padwo-Audick and Matt Conner is to scare the bejesus out of patrons and get them to make an appointment for a checkup or baseline reading, they’ve exceeded their calling. There’s even the “Fringe” benefit of free SPF 50 sunscreen at the door.
But despite powerhouse talent, creative direction, and gobs of useful information on display (literally, projections detail treatment and risks), something about this earnest show doesn’t quite work.
We meet four patients in their dermatologist’s waiting room — each representing different phases of life and, later, stages of disease. Melanie (Francesca Katherine Ferrara) is overloaded as a working mom, with priorities out of whack because she views medical care as an inconvenience. Young hipster Cherry (America Michelle) has been baking in tanning beds to get into prime wedding shape. Diana (Zoé Badovinac), an empty nester and a rabid gardener, shuns sunhats. Tim (Sowande Tichawonna) is an overachieving CFO and athlete “in the best shape of his life” who believes Black men can’t get skin cancer.
We soak in their grim camaraderie and scattered laugh lines to ease the telescopic tension. One especially bright spot: Carla Baechtle multitasks spectacularly as three doctors, toggling three accents and sporting three wigs and changes of shoes (a sixth, silent performer serves only as her onstage dresser). At first one wonders: Is having one performer play all three doctors symbolism saying the medical establishment is anonymous and faceless? No, because Baechtle — and Padwo-Audick, herself a cancer survivor — humanize them. A cinematic score by Matt Conner combined with scenic projections adds the polish of a streamed drama series. Aside from the unfortunate miscued chime to simulate the clinking of plastic wine glasses, the production value is above-par. (Michelle impressively provides her own sound effects — and does her own yoga stunts.)
So why does it not yank the heartstrings? We witness plenty of emotion as each character deals with a diagnosis. Cherry catastrophizes. Melanie bargains, comically. Diana’s deep faith is shaken. Tim’s denial and blistering anger … well, that does work. Tichawonna’s transformation is the most searing, as he takes a stand, center stage, against society’s mutual, microscopic enemy.
Still, the show’s resolution felt endless. And maybe that’s the point. Through this jeremiad of pain and suffering with no cure in sight, we are inspired, simply, to endure. Get seen. Donate. Comfort. Take care. Take time. Take action. Wear sunscreen. And share your cancer stories with strangers.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Co-directors and co-producers: Dara Padwo-Audick, Matt Conner
Playwright: Dara Padwo-Audick
Performers: Zoé Badovinac, Carla Baechtle, Francesca Ferrara, America Michelle, Sowande Tichawonna
Composer: Matt Conner
Age appropriateness: Recommended for children 13 + older
SEE ALSO: 2023 Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Onion Skin’ (preview by Dara Padwo-Audick, July 11, 2023)
The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.