Actress Anita Hollander has survived a lot. She’s dealt with multiple bouts of cancer and a resulting leg amputation, all while continuing to perform, get married, have a child and serve as an advocate for other disabled performers.
Anita Hollander created a solo musical about the experience of losing her left leg to cancer and has been performing it in its current iteration for around 25 years.
Near the end of “Still Standing,’’ her solo musical about the experience of losing her left leg to cancer and the life she forged after that, Anita Hollander sings: “I got a heart, a brain, and chutzpah, too.’’
By then, it is clear that Hollander also possesses abundant reserves of self-confidence, a wry sense of humor, and resilience. Just a month after Hollander’s leg was amputated at the age of 26, she was “back on stage, opening in a show,’’ she writes in a program note. At one point during her performance in “Still Standing,’’ Hollander hangs her prosthetic limb at a jaunty angle over her shoulder.
But “Still Standing’’ ultimately is not as distinctive as the multifaceted actress-composer-director-activist who created it.
As a lyricist, Hollander has a tendency to gravitate to the easy rhyme rather than consistently strive for depth and originality of expression. Consequently, too many of the dozen-plus songs in “Still Standing’’ drift off into the hazy realm of the generic. The one-hour show, which is being presented through Sunday by the New Repertory Theatre in the Mosesian Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater, is also marred by Hollander’s intermittently wobbly vocals, at least at the performance I saw.
Having been performing “Still Standing’’ in its current iteration for around 25 years, Hollander was ahead of her time in putting the experience of disability onstage. There have been some heartening signs recently that the rest of the theater world is intent on doing likewise. In 2017, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, became the first actress in a wheelchair to play a lead role on Broadway when she portrayed Laura Wingfield in Sam Gold’s production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,’’ which also starred Sally Field, Joe Mantello, and Finn Wittrock.
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living,’’ a play about the complex relationships between disabled people and their caregivers that premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2016 before moving off-Broadway. Both productions featured Katy Sullivan, who was born without lower legs, as a double amputee, and Gregg Mozgala as a privileged Princeton graduate student who, like Mozgala, has cerebral palsy.
In “Still Standing,’’ Hollander recounts some eye-opening, and occasionally jaw-dropping, experiences of the kind of obtuse behavior disabled people can be subjected to, such as the time on a TV talk show she was asked by “a TV psychologist,’’ whether she only dated one-legged men after losing her leg. (She notes that she met and married a two-legged man, and they had a child together.)
Yet in general the tone of “Still Standing’’ leans toward a kind of hortatory uplift that might partly be explained by the fact that Hollander is a disability rights activist who over the years has performed “Still Standing’’ at colleges, prisons, hospitals, rehab centers, temples, and churches as well as theaters. She says in press materials that she views the show as “my best reply to people asking my help as they struggle to survive life’s catastrophes.’’
That’s certainly laudable, but even when the experiences described or reenacted in “Still Standing’’ are deeply personal and the emotions are clearly heartfelt, their impact is diluted by bland formulations like “To ease the painful times, share the joyful too/ I want to be there for you/ I want to be there with you’’ or “It’s oh-so-hard, but it’s inside you, so don’t give in and don’t give up’’ or “Though I may be weary from the dusk till the dawn/When the sun comes up my spirit goes on.’’
What reverberates more than such determinedly chipper moments are the times Hollander plumbs the raw depths of despair, as when she sings of “the hate that is building inside you as you’re able to do less and less. . . . Just to get from one day to another, sick of all those who don’t understand,’’ or when she wrenchingly conveys the agony of “phantom pain’’ (“That’s the pain you feel in the limb that’s no longer there’’). At times, she blends humor and poignancy to good effect. After her leg was amputated, she says, “I imagined that my leg was whisked away on a 50-city tour of the world’s most famous research hospitals,’’ a fanciful image that quickly gives way to her account of going to the hospital chapel late one night to say goodbye to the leg, followed by a song that includes the line: “You let me keep dancing, now how can I let you go?’’
Flaws and all, “Still Standing’’ does demonstrate, literally and figuratively, that Hollander found a way to keep dancing.