Click the play button to watch an audio slide show from Cookin' with Gus. If you hit the four-arrow button at the far right of the control bar, it will play in full screen mode.
DANVILLE — When Holly Henson was diagnosed with breast cancer in April, her first thought was, “Let’s go to New York and get the actors.”
OK. It isn’t a standard reaction to being diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness.
But theater has been in Henson’s blood a lot longer than cancer, and when it’s April, it’s time to head to New York and hire actors for the upcoming season at the Pioneer Playhouse. Henson’s father, Eben Henson, built the Danville Theatre in 1950 and directed it until his death in 2004. All 48 years of Holly’s life, summer and summer stock were synonymous, even before she became artistic director a few years before her father passed away.
So cancer or not, she left her home in Minneapolis, picked up her mother, Charlotte, in Danville, and headed to New York to audition a company.
Cancer, however, cannot be ignored. She got the ball rolling, but Holly has spent most of this summer away from the theater where she grew up, pursuing alternative cancer therapies in Minnesota and Oklahoma City.
“Somebody asked the question, ‘Is the Playhouse going to go on?’ and I don’t even see that as being a question,’” said Holly’s brother, Robby Henson, a Los Angeles-based film director. “If it’s summer, the Playhouse is here. We don’t think about it too hard, we just do.”
It just meant that Robby expanded his role from directing the first play of the season, which he has done for years, to staying at the theater to oversee the shows.
And Holly and Robby’s other sister, Heather, helped in the front office and with marketing despite a busy career. Heather is a children’s book author and has three titles coming out this year, including That Book Woman, about a rural Kentucky librarian, due in October.
“When one of us goes down, we come together as a family,” Holly said. “And there’s a larger family of the community and the actors and helping hands.”
Holly chats while sitting in the dining area of the playhouse. At this hour, five nights a week, the place is usually buzzing with patrons loading fried chicken and potatoes on their plates for the pre-show meal, and Charlotte is playing her guitar for patrons. But it’s Monday, one of the theater’s off days, so the Hensons are quietly dining together as crickets chirp in the nearby trees.
There are just a few other actors and technicians left for the final production of the season, Cookin’ With Gus, in which Holly Henson plays the title character, Gussie, a successful cooking writer who aspires to have her own TV show.
“Part of our strategic planning was, ‘Holly would probably put butts in seats by starring in the fifth show,’” Robby says. “She is the face of the Playhouse, so it does bring people in when she’s in a show.”
Earlier in the summer, Charlotte says, “We were thinking we would have to have another actress come in for the show.”
When he heard that Holly would be coming, director Lawrence Lesher wondered what he would be getting.
“It was touch and go for a while because of her illness,” Lesher says. “I was hoping the rigors of the show and life here, what we do here, wouldn’t impact her too negatively, because we’re out in the open, in the heat, and it’s a lot of work.
“I sent her an e-mail saying, ‘Please, don’t jeopardize your health. We’ll find someone else.’ But she wanted to do it, and now I’m glad she did.”
Going a non-traditional route of treatments including diet, vitamins and hormone therapy, plus doing the play, has raised concerns with some people in Henson’s family.
“In my mind, I’m not sure it’s the best thing for Holly’s health to be in this play,” Robby says. “But I understand it was conceived for her to star in it, and I think she feels it’s a good thing for her to be doing it.”
Says Holly: “It’s been fun for me, because I came in fresh, since I haven’t been stressed all summer. There’s stress, but now I just step back and let Robby deal with it.”
Holly says her primary limitations are a diminished voice and a little trouble learning lines. She says she and actor Mike McRee, who plays the boyfriend who doesn’t want Gussie to have a TV show, have developed a system for when she blanks on a line. One of them will say, “I’ve got to check the mail,” and go offstage to get the line.
At the Monday night dress rehearsal, they did employ that strategy once, although Holly replied, “We’ve already done that,” and then they were back on track.
That night, Henson had few problems with the dialogue in the broad, physical comedy that includes a second-act food fight between Henson and longtime Pioneer Playhouse actor Patricia Hammond. The smoothness of the play reflects the overall smoothness of the summer, considering the circumstances.
“Even though we didn’t have Holly, we sort of had a dream team of actors and directors and designers,” Robby says. “Everyone had been here before and knew what to do.”
That’s not to say that Holly plans to not be in Danville next summer. In fact, she probably will provide the locally penned script, which has become a summer staple at the Playhouse. Holly has been updating her father’s play about Ephraim McDowell, the Danville doctor who performed the first ovariotomy and pioneered abdominal surgery.
By then, she hopes, the cancer will be behind her, one way or another.
Under her doctor’s direction, Holly has been treating the cancer through diet, exercise and stress reduction. She says she feels better, but she awaits tests to tell whether the cancer has subsided.
“Don’t feel sorry for me; feel sorry for the cancer cells,” Henson wrote by e-mail earlier this summer. On Monday, she said, “I found out what cancer hates, and I torture it. It hates heat, it hates oxygen, it hates alkalinity, it hates a great diet, it hates happiness, it hates all those things.
“As my diet improves, my mood actually lifts. I have never felt better.”
She acknowledges that she might still face chemotherapy and a mastectomy, but she wanted to go at it another way first.
Either way, she doesn’t want to be known for her illness.
“I don’t want to be labeled as a cancer person,” Henson says. “I think when you own it, it becomes a permanent part of you, and I’m pushing it out.”