Thursday, May 27, 2004

David Hyde Pierce and Wendy Wasserstein together as featured entertainment at a fund-raiser supporting Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center doesn’t sound likely.

But given the theme of Wednesday’s event in the Mandarin Oriental hotel — “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” — the duo fit right in. Mr. Pierce is between comic acting roles, from TV’s “Frasier” to “Monty Python” in musical form on Broadway, and Miss Wasserstein is a famously witty playwright. Both have dealt with medical scourges, as they told an audience of 150 supporters of Lombardi’s Arts & Humanities program helping patients use art to deal with cancer’s often devastating emotional effects.

“One out of every three people will be affected by cancer in his lifetime, and we have 7,000 new patients annually,” Lombardi Center Director Dr. Richard Pestell noted informally during the reception. “Studies show that creative action reduces the need for pain medication, primarily for adults.”

“To survive is not enough — but to thrive,” said an anonymous patient in a video presentation during the evening program.

Maybe the fact that Dr. Pestell is a poet as well as a breast and prostate cancer specialist explained his reference to fifth-century B.C. Greek dramatist Euripides as the first to proclaim the therapeutic value of art.

The Lombardi Center’s art therapy program is believed to be the most extensive one of its kind in the Washington area. Its full-time head is Nancy Morgan, a poet and teacher who manages the program’s $150,000 annual budget. “It’s an entire community working together in the arts,” bringing in doctors as well, said Ms. Morgan, who just happens to be Mr. Pierce’s sister.

“I’m his big sister,” she explained emphatically when asked how she managed to snag the two stars for this first-ever benefit, “and David just happened to be between commitments, so it all worked out.”

Blessed be the ties that bind: Mr. Pierce knew Miss Wasserstein from the time he appeared in her play “The Heidi Chronicles.” Miss Wasserstein’s play “An American Daughter” was performed at Arena Stage last year, so she was happy to meet philanthropist and Arena benefactor Gilbert Mead, who had been treated for non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the Lombardi Center, part of the Georgetown University Medical Center. A scene from her play “Welcome to My Rash” — last seen here at Theatre J — was performed after dinner by actors Kathryn Grody and Bill Grimmette.

There was laughter, but a few tears as well. Mr. Pierce told of his mother’s death from pancreatic cancer, remembering how she watched “Frasier” episodes and laughed; Miss Wasserstein spoke of a sister with cancer and went on to praise “those people who are creative and those who are scientific.”

The greatest ones, she added are those “who merge both.”

Ann Geracimos

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