For a 2nd time, Corinne Johnson plays the role of cancer patient in stage drama

2010-08-08T02:00:00Z 2010-08-08T05:54:23Z For a 2nd time, Corinne Johnson plays the role of cancer patient in stage dramaDavid Burke The Quad-City Times
August 08, 2010 2:00 am  • 

The electric razor buzzed and, bit by bit, Corinne Johnson's dark blonde hair fell in pieces to her lap and the floor below.

Within a matter of minutes, her hair went from a long bob to a millimeter long as a video camera rolled to film a commercial for The Curtainbox Theatre Company's production of "Wit."

"I'm not a woman who prides herself on any sense of vanity," Johnson said after the fact and with self-deprecating humor. "My self-worth comes from things other than my looks, thank God. Otherwise I wouldn't have any self-worth.

"Cutting my hair is kind of awkward, but it's not who I am."

Johnson plays Vivian Bearing, a woman battling ovarian cancer, in Margaret Edson's "Wit," which opens this week. It's the second time Johnson has shaved her head - the last time was in 2003, when she played the same role in New Ground Theatre's production of the same show.

"My embarrassment is that I have very little memory of the last show," Johnson said. "It was a wonderful experience, don't get me wrong, but I thought the lines would come back like that (snapping her fingers), and it is as if I have never done it to tell you the God's truth."

A Quad-City Times review of the ‘03 show said that Johnson played the role with "clean, superb skill."

The New Ground production was directed by Lora Adams, who is an assistant producer in this version. The Curtainbox production is directed by Philip Wm. McKinley (see related story on page H3), who wasn't aware that Johnson had done the show previously until the second or third rehearsal.

"I don't think it's necessarily difficult as long as the actor is open to new discoveries, and Cory is," he said. "And two directors are not going to have the same viewpoint."

Johnson said each version reflects its director's interpretation.

"It's exploring different elements of the same story and the same character," she said. "They're distinctly different experiences."

Johnson said audiences will notice a difference as well.

"I find this to be more hopeful," she said. "It might be where I am in my life, but I think it's the direction in which Phil is taking it. It's an eternal plan, as opposed to a definitive end.

"Not saying there's a religious overtone necessarily, but there's a spiritual sense of connection that I'm discovering through his direction," she added. "It's always there to discover. I just didn't find it the last time."

Kimberly Furness, the founder of Curtainbox and producer of "Wit," said she, Johnson and McKinley got together this past winter and chose a show they could work on together.

"If I could get Lora on board with me and get Cory back in, maybe we could put this thing up again," Furness said.

Johnson is beginning her 21st year of teaching theater at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where she is the department chairwoman. Furness, one of Johnson's first theater students, played the famed French fashion designer in "Creme de Coco: A Portrait of Coco Chanel" that McKinley directed at Ambrose in 2007.

Furness said "Wit" is one of her favorite dramas.

"I think it's about life and what life throws at you and overcoming and finding hope, even in the most dire of circumstances," she said.

Also a busy area actress (she's currently onstage in "Squabbles" at Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse), Furness said there are many positive aspects of returning to the same role.

"The character gets richer each time I do it. And I get older and you bring your life experience to the role," added Furness, who has played Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Ado Annie in "Oklahoma!" and a brusque con woman who steals jewelry from corpses in the drama "Three Viewings."

In the 7 1/2 years since she last did the role, Johnson said she has seen many friends fight with cancer and other fatal diseases, some of them losing the battle.

"Some of the experience ... has informed, has sobered and also taught me the importance of living each day and living each day with humor as well as respect," she said.

This time, Johnson said, she is reading the works of poet John Donne, whom her "Wit" scholar character studies, for insight. She has even called on her mother, a retired English teacher, for help in the analysis.

"Boy, his stuff is tough," Johnson said of Donne.

Shaving her head or playing the difficult role of a cancer patient is nothing next to the real thing, she added.

"The comparison of a mentally challenging role and actually going through this illness is incomparable. I have great respect and reverence for the people who have survived cancer and are fighting it and are losing the fight. I hope and try to tell their story respectfully."

Copyright 2015 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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