From left: Andrew French (Toby) and Zach Sease (Crowley) reherse for "New Voices - The Crowleys of Tobias," a studio production written by EMU senior Michael Bodner. Crowley represents hallucinations Toby goes through as a side effect of having this specific type of brain cancer. (Photo by Annie Diller)

Student writes unflinching play, now staged, about 17-year-old dying of cancer

Two weeks before his senior thesis project due date, Eastern Mennonite University senior theater and writing studies major Michael Bodner decided on a path he’d never tread: He wanted to write a tragedy.

“I’ve written a lot of comedy, satire and even horror, but I’ve never written a cancer play,” explained Bodner, an aspiring playwright.

“I decided I was going to start interviewing people who had their lives affected by cancer — patient, doctor, nurse, family member — and try to create a fictional story based off the interviews I had with them,” he continued.

More than 150 pages later, Bodner settled on an idea. He would write a play centered on the life of a 50-year-old man stricken with Grade Three anaplastic astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer.

After more consideration, Bodner changed course again.

“Originally, [the play] was going to be about a 50-year-old man, then I decided that was horrible. I had never been a 50-year-old man,” said Bodner. “So, I wrote from the perspective of a high schooler instead.

“The original script that I had is very different from the one [I ended up with].”

Hence the final installment of his idea, “The Crowleys of Tobias,” a student-oriented Laboratory Production, which will run Dec. 5-7 in EMU’s Lee Eshleman Studio Theater.

The play follows 17-year-old Tobias in his final moments battling brain cancer, which fully develops in his temporal lobe. Throughout the drama, the audience witnesses the development of Tobias’ relationships with his mother, Lydia, his friends, Blake and Zoe, and the hallucinogenic manifestation known as Crowley, which helps Tobias cope with dying.

“The theme is still very much the same, but a lot of the plot structure itself has changed because it’s not a 50-year-old man,” said Bodner. “The dynamic changes from ‘What I could have done’ to ‘What I’ll never be able to do.’ ”

To help Bodner bring his lines to life, co-director Amanda Chandler sought to display the realism she found throughout the script.

“We see Tobias as a normal 17-year-old,” explained the senior theater and history major. “I wanted to highlight [his] relationships and juxtapose them with the outrageous behavior of Crowley and the dream world he orchestrates.”

Bodner explains Crowley’s relationship with Tobias.

“It’s the idea of having the wickedest man in the world running around in your head causing all sorts of ruckus,” Bodner elaborated. “Crowley, to me, represents a cruel reality of love within death, a weird, twisted, morbid form of love. But it in that grotesqueness you find something beautiful.”

Associate professor of EMU’s theater department Heidi Winters Vogel oversaw the creative process behind the presentation and commends Bodner for his script.

“Michael is a very good writer,” said Vogel. “He did a lot of interviewing with hospice workers and Astrocytoma patients — most of them who are no longer alive — because it does have a very high mortality rate. He’s been really honest to their experience.”

“The journey I took comes out in the play,” concludes Bodner.

The play stages at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 5 and 6; and 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. Dec. 7.

Tickets are $5 for general admission and $2 for EMU students. Contact the EMU theater department at 540-432-4360 for more information and age appropriateness.

Courtesy Daily News Record, Dec. 5, 2013