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Director Matthew Gunnels takes on cancer, onstage and off

Gunnels tackles cancer themes in Hell in a Handbag’s gender-bending spin on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof while battling his own Stage IV diagnosis.

Photograph: Martha Williams
Theater Director Matthew Gunnels

“All of my nurses said, ‘Your sense of humor is going to keep you alive,’ ” Matthew Gunnels says. On a warm Saturday morning in September, Gunnels meets me at a North Center coffee shop before spending the rest of the day in rehearsal for Pussy on the House, the show he’s directing for Hell in a Handbag Productions.

Pussy, a gender-bending spin on Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof penned by Boston playwright Ryan Landry, turns Big Daddy into Big Mama, the lesbian lover of Brick’s mother, Sukie. Female roles such as Maggie “the cat” and “sister-woman” Mae are played in drag.

Gunnels, who’s regularly directed for Handbag as well as Porchlight and Emerald City, says Handbag audiences may be surprised by how much of Williams’s drama is left intact, especially in terms of the family’s reactions to Big Mama’s cancer diagnosis. “It’s very much like the stuff Hell in a Handbag does; it’s campy, it’s silly. But this has this huge heart to it,” Gunnels says. “I think it might be the first Handbag show where the audience might cry. It’s pretty intense.”

The show’s themes are particularly resonant for Gunnels, 37, who was diagnosed in February with stage IV colon cancer that had spread to his liver. Doctors told him that with treatment, he had one to two years to live; without treatment, he’d be dead in six weeks. “I said, I think I’m gonna fight this,” he says. “The next day I was getting chemo.”

Gunnels found a “cancierge” in his longtime friend David Cerda, Hell in a Handbag’s artistic director. “I really depend on David now to cart my ass over to St. Joseph’s and get treatment. I wouldn’t be able to do this without him,” says the single Gunnels, whose family remains in his native Cincinnati. “The nurses are like, ‘We love you guys in here. You’re the highlight of the week!’ I’m sure they don’t have a lot of patients that walk in there and knock all the nurses on their asses laughing.”

Seven months after he began treatment, Gunnels is doing better than anyone expected, which he attributes entirely to attitude. “I still have my hair. I have good hair, so I was really worried about losing it,” he says with a smirk. Aside from the occasional nausea or loss of appetite, he hasn’t gotten sick from the chemo, and he says his last CAT scan showed his tumors are shrinking to a point where surgery may become an option.

Not long after he began treatment, Cerda sent Gunnels a text message from Boston, where Cerda had seen Landry’s remount of his 2004 work. “All it said was, ‘Do you like Tennessee Williams?’ ” Gunnels recalls. And then came another: “ ‘We have a project.’ ”

“I needed to put him to work doing something that he loves, rather than coddling him and feeling sorry for him,” Cerda says. “I think people’s passion is what keeps them alive.”

They scrambled to add Pussy to the fall season. Gunnels has an assistant director in place so that the show could go on if he had to miss rehearsals or bow out, but that hasn’t been an issue.

“I’m dealing with [the play] the way I’m dealing with my cancer. You have to deal with truths and honesties and try and look on the bright side,” he says. “It’s weird thinking it might be the last play I direct. But now it’s looking like it might not be.”

Pussy on the House previews Friday 23–Sunday 25 and opens Tuesday 27 at the Athenaeum.

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