Don (David Alan Morrison) and Karla (Bethany Roddy) meet in a hospital room that their cancer-stricken mothers share in the dark comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.” (Larry T. Lisk)

Don (David Alan Morrison) and Karla (Bethany Roddy) meet in a hospital room that their cancer-stricken mothers share in the dark comedy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.” (Larry T. Lisk)

‘Funny Thing’ examines the thin line between laughter and pain

The plot: Strangers get to know each other when their cancer-stricken mothers share a hospital room.

Plays like this don’t make it to community theater very often.

Director Sherry Penoyer hadn’t seen anything like it when she read the script — and she’s been involved with theater for 50 years.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City” — a dark comedy with a crazy-long title — is staging Jan. 24 through Feb. 2 at the Red Curtain Arts Center in Marysville.

“Funny Thing” is filled with inappropriate jokes about cancer, death and sex, but there is good reason for it.

The play explores the relationship between Karla, a foul-mouthed twenty-something comedian played by Bethany Roddy, and Don, a middle-aged man who is going through a nasty divorce played by David Alan Morrison.

When their cancer-stricken mothers — Marcie (Dawn Cornell) and Geena (Debra Polano) — become roommates in a hospital, the duo is forced to navigate their challenging circumstances together.

But things get off to a rocky start when Don meets Karla as she’s halfway through rehearsing an indelicate monologue. While her jokes are offensive at first, it becomes clear later on that Karla’s jokes are a shield against her emotions.

When he first read “Funny Thing,” Morrison was shocked by its raw portrayal of grief and rage — and not to mention the gallows humor.

But then he realized the message of the play: Those of us affected most by cancer deserve a pass for how they choose to cope.

“You can’t see it through your eyes and be offended by the language because of your own experiences,” he said. “The characters being portrayed are people who hurt, and using this dark humor is a way to deal with their own pain.”

It’s a defense mechanism that director Penoyer knows all too well. Her husband, Ron Penoyer, died from leukemia in 1986.

“I call them ‘widow jokes,’” she said. “I’ve been telling them for 33 years.”

Though the play hits home for Penoyer, she said it’s “possibly the most joyous project” she’s ever done after five decades with local productions.

She said it’s also been a joy to see how fearlessly the actors have taken on their roles.

“They come to life in ways that were a surprise to me,” she said. “They found more in these roles than most actors are willing to go — and then they went a little further.”

Penoyer said she is proud that Red Curtain is is staging what she calls a “risky” play.

“It really is the epitome of good drama — like Greek drama — in that it has both tragedy and comedy,” she said. “It’s going to make people laugh and cry.”

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

If you go

“A Funny Thing Happened…” stages Jan. 24 through Feb. 2 at Red Curtain Arts Center, 9315 State Ave., Suite J, Marysville (in the Goodwill shopping center, behind the Everett Community College cosmetology school). Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors, students and military personnel and $10 for kids. Call 360-322-7402 or go to to www.redcurtainfoundation.org for more information.

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