CAMBRIDGE — Eve Ensler navigates her confrontation with cancer with the same unblinking intensity and humor she brought to other “taboo” topics. Almost.
In fact, “In the Body of the World,” the stage adaptation of her 2013 memoir that is having its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater, is the most compelling in those moments when Ensler’s determination fails her.
We know Ensler is a feminist, an activist, a fierce warrior fighting to end violence against women. We know this from her stunning “The Vagina Monologues,” in which she recounted women’s feelings about their most intimate body part; “Necessary Targets,” her look at the devastating impact of the war in Bosnia on women; and from “The Good Body,” her personal exploration of destructive body images. She is also a poet, whose sense of the rhythm of language infuses her writing with a lyricism that makes it perfect for the stage.
But with “In the Body of the World,” Ensler raises the dramatic stakes by talking about her brush with death and her experience with Stage III B/Stage IV cancer. She divides the journey into three parts: “Somnolence,” a denial of what’s right in front of you; “Burning,” the experience of willingly adding the poison of chemotherapy to your body to kill the cancer; and “Second Wind,” that energy it takes to get back on the path of living again.
While Ensler’s structure traces the journey of most cancer survivors, her story is especially affecting when she reveals intimate and unexpected moments of revelation: the doctor who calmed her fears by treating her with respect; the long-estranged sister who showed up, and stayed, to comfort and care for her; the release of long-held resentment she felt for her emotionally unavailable mother; and her wrenching concern about leaving her son.
Her vulnerability is achingly recognizable and her all-too-real terror lurks just beneath the surface of humorous references to “Cancer Town” and the “infusion suite” where she receives her chemotherapy. The moment when she removes her “Louise Brooks” pageboy wig — she calls it a hard-earned part of her identity — is both heartbreaking and refreshingly honest.
Ensler, however, is also an internationally renowned activist, whose cancer strikes while she is in the midst of fund-raising for a refuge for victims of gender violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. She connects the chaos going on inside her own body with the destruction of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the rape and devastation perpetrated on the mineral-rich country of Congo. Refusing to take any time for self-pity, Ensler places her individual crisis in the context of the horrific physical and psychological suffering of the women in the Congo. Her pain is nothing compared to theirs. The perspective and courage of those women inspires her not only to move forward but to let go of some of the emotional baggage she held so tightly for so long.
Diane Paulus provides “In the Body of the World” with precisely defined direction, which helps contain some of the sections that sound a bit like therapy sessions. Each transition — from hospital bed to home — seamlessly moves the action forward while keeping us riveted on Ensler’s delivery. While the jungle setting, complete with live foliage, is lovely to look at, the play’s “gorillas in the mist” moment felt a bit overdone. Ensler’s poetic realization of the importance of connection and community is powerful enough on its own, and her voice and investment in the body of the world are more than enough to bring the audience along on her journey.
IN THE BODY OF THE WORLD
Written and performed by Eve Ensler. Directed by Diane Paulus. Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through May 29. Tickets: Start at $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.