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February 10, 2016
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The Liberty Free Theatre celebrates life

As I read through my e-mails last week, a press release from the Liberty Free Theatre (LFT) caught my attention. “We’re gearing up for our eighth season,” it began, “with a special event production of Constance Alexander’s ‘The Way Home’ as a fundraiser for CROC (Citizens Reunited to Overcome Cancer).” Some of the words leaped off the page, shouting at me, causing me to pause. CROC. Cancer. Home.

“I know these words,” I whispered aloud. “I know cancer.” I also know the Liberty Free Theatre, and a visit there always feels like home. Reading on, I discovered that the LFT has “partnered with CROC to enhance their emergency relief fund” with a special performance of Alexander’s new play on May 11 at 7:30 p.m. Memories flooded as I reviewed my own personal journey that began more than seven years ago. Shortly after being diagnosed with Barretts Esophagus, a digestive disease that affects (primarily) men in their 40s and 50s, I was led to understand that, aside from the esophageal erosion that stems from acid reflux, an unusual cancer can arise. As I underwent treatment for Barretts, the required biopsy delivered the bad news and my relationship with cancer began.

Cancer and celebrating are two words that don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but they are what CROC, established in 1999, is all about. The organization, “whose mission is to lavish cancer survivors with love, empower them with information, and motivate them to move” is amazing. I discovered CROC through a friend, and initially dismissed it. Having been involved with a cancer “support” group in the past, I was not interested in simply sitting with others in order to bemoan our fate to anyone within earshot. Glancing at its web site (www.crocalumni.org ) revealed a different approach and its motto, “Turning Tragedy into Triumph,” appealed, so I attended a get-together and found CROC to be as motivating and empowering as promised.

I called Paul Austin, artistic director of the LFT, to find out what the theatre’s connection to CROC was all about. “This play [“The Way Home”] came to me via the playwright,” Austin told me. “We’ve worked together in the past, stayed in touch, and she particularly wants this work to be shared with rural communities, since the characters showcased in ‘The Way Home’ are from western Kentucky. The play, which tells the story of two very different individuals, celebrates their lives and the spirit of cancer survivors, which is the thrust of CROC’s mission. We really wanted to get this message across here at home, so it just made sense.”

Constance Alexander is an award-winning newspaper columnist, poet and independent producer, as well as playwright, and she has conducted several oral history projects documenting various aspects of western Kentucky history. “I’m treating this work as a spoken opera,” Austin said. “We’ve added some theatrical touches with lighting and sound design, but it is being presented as a reading.”

Austin went on to inform me that the play emerged from a series of interviews with two women that Alexander had conducted for a documentary radio series. One had no health insurance, and the other was so inspired by her struggle that she donated $1,000 to launch a community fundraising effort to help. In the end, both women were hospice patients. “One of the things I see in the play is that it reminds us to see the individual stories,” he said. “It brings the message home. This production is about so much more than just a disease. It’s real and reminds us of the amazing spirit, humanity and what a community can achieve together and what a grand thing that is.”

CROC founder Dr. Thomas Eanelli writes that the organization was “initially established as an alumni program to honor the many brave and courageous patients and families fighting, and surviving, the tragedy of cancer.” He goes on to say that he wanted to create a “mechanism of support and celebration where patients and their families could be themselves, share feelings, show vulnerability, and not feel pity from others.”

Eanellis’ vision for CROC attracts hundreds of people from all walks of life, including myself. He sees “the miracle of connecting as a rejuvenation, a reawakening and an inspirational model for all citizens who face life-changing challenges.” This sentiment—shared by Alexander, Austin, CROC and the LFT—is universal in theme and personal in nature. “We’re hoping that CROC will continue to use this theatrical work as fundraisers for hospice, nursing associations and ongoing events in the community,” Austin said, adding that the playwright is willing to make that possible by waiving certain fees normally associated with licensing the production.

Discussion and support groups, a Guardian Angel program and patient financial support are but a few of the many services that CROC provides to the community, and the LFT’s special fundraising performance is an exciting opportunity for local involvement, education and participation. While “The Way Home” may be a personal journey for me, I’m hoping that others will congregate at the theatre this coming Friday, for I am by no means alone. Seating for this noteworthy performance is limited and reservations are recommended. Call 845/292-3788. For information on the programs and services that CROC provides, call 845/291-8578.y, where the truth lies.”