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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 05:28 pm

The play’s the thing

"Degrees of Lucky," a one-act play written by the late Judy Dyer, premieres Monday at UIS

Judy Dyer (right) with sister-in-law Cindy Schlessinger at Passover Seder about five years ago. Cindy grabbed the horseradish; Judy wanted it back.
“My radiation oncologist cruelly resisted my pleas. I begged him to irradiate the unaffected breast so it would be big and perky and glow in the dark like the one they zapped.”
“Degrees of Lucky,” Judith Schlessinger Dyer

Judy Dyer, who died of breast cancer earlier this month, left behind a one-act drama about two breast-cancer survivors who participate in a “race for the cure.” Her play has generated considerable interest in recent weeks: four informal readings, a brief radio interview, and the premiere, scheduled for next Monday at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Much of the energy driving the production was a desire on the part of Dyer’s many friends to allow her to see her work performed in public, and she was looking forward to it. But the late-November reading date was too optimistic. Dyer, an undergraduate and law-school alumna of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, died Nov. 6 [see “Her huge heart,” Nov. 10]. Deeply held affection for the author continues, word of mouth is spreading, and the public-reading date is being kept. The piece was created several years ago in a playwriting workshop, when Dyer was in remission from her initial bout with breast cancer. After treatment, she was cancer-free for almost six years, but, some two-and-a-half years ago, the disease returned. Friends and family who gathered recently in Dyer’s living room for a reading of the play grinned at her pointed suggestion that the play’s attribution read, “Written by Judy ‘I’m The One Who’s Terminal’ Dyer.” At that time, in late October, she was still able to sit propped up in the hospital bed in her living room. Script and pencil in hand, she scrawled notes for emendation and improvement as she listened to Springfield authors Carol Manley and Lola Lucas reading the women’s roles. Retired UIS professor Larry Golden and Dyer’s husband, Jack, read the men’s roles. The appreciative audience that afternoon included poet Jacqueline Jackson, retired UIS professor and a weekly contributor to Illinois Times, who commented that the play was “deliciously bawdy.” She had welcomed Dyer into her “no-name” weekly writers’ group. One of Dyer’s last trips out of the house was to join the group. Dyer was painfully thin and considerably weakened by the cancer but was delighted to be out of the house, where she had been lying for months, and going to a writing group. This was evident in her determination, humorous banter, and luminous blue eyes and smile during the 10-minute ride to the gathering. She listened, laughed, and talked with the group for more than two hours, tethered to a bag of intravenous hydrating solution that hung alongside her wheelchair. In past years, Dyer wanted to pursue creative writing, but family needs, the demands of her job as a legal staffer at a state agency, and volunteer activities kept her busy. Yet she managed to squeeze the workshop into a busy schedule. The instructor, Shannon Keith Kelley, tried to have the drama produced, but circumstances intervened. The manila folder labeled “Play,” which held Dyer’s marked-up 27-page script and a few workshop notes, was filed away in a seldom-used sunroom. Two years ago, Dyer allowed confidante Vera Herst to read the play, but, Herst said, “Judy swore me to secrecy not to talk about it.” It was after her evening with the writing group that Dyer revealed the play to others. The plot draws on Dyer’s experience as a breast-cancer survivor at the time, and what she writes contains deeply felt thoughts. Dyer emphasized, though, that the play “is not autobiographical.” It is the work of a lively and inventive mind. “I think I’m more everything since breast cancer . . . . Well, maybe it’s a function of aging, too, but life seems more intense since the Big Battle,” says Beth, the play’s other cancer survivor, who challenges but ultimately comforts Lucy during the course of the 45-minute piece. Dyer’s older brother, Daniel Schlessinger, the day before his sister died, described Judy as a “keen observer of what’s going on around her. She has an empathy . . . and can give someone a look, or a sentence, a word that is meant for that one person” in a way that is very disarming, he said. Though family expectations guided Judy and her brothers Daniel and Michael toward the law, Judy “never really wanted to be a lawyer,” Schlessinger said. “She wanted to be a writer, but she didn’t think writing would have fulfilled her parents’ expectations. Creativity would come bubbling out in her humor [which is a way for] people to express themselves in a situation they don’t want to be in.” Illinois College drama teacher Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson, who is directing the production, reads the part of Lucy. Linda Castor reads Beth. David Logan, playwright and English instructor at Springfield College in Illinois, reads Ralph, and Brad Hammond reads Bartender/Tom. A typical exercise after the reading of a new work is discussion of various elements of the play, and this convention will be observed in a brief question-and-answer period. A dessert reception will follow the reading.
“Degrees of Lucky,” a one-act play written by Judith Schlessinger Dyer, premieres at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 28, in the Studio Theatre, on the UIS campus. The reading is open to the public, but, because of some graphic sexual dialogue, it is recommended for mature audiences. There is no admission charge.
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