Paul Linke has stopped doing tumor humor.
"Tumor humor has seen its day," acknowledged the actor, whose one-man show, "Time Flies When You're Alive" (currently playing to packed houses at the Powerhouse) focuses on the 1986 cancer death of his wife, Francesca (Chex) Draper.
"See, I feel very strongly about one thing in theater: that people shouldn't be bored--ever. When we did 'Linke vs. Redfield for the World Cup, Gold Cup, Puck Cup Belt' (Powerhouse, 1983/84), I thought we had to have raffles and gimmicks, give away props, have a Miss World. But when it came to doing this show, I realized 'That's not it. It's sitting in the chair, having this open, raw kind of sharing.' "
The results, Linke noted, are overwhelming. "I'm tapping into something and it's really strong," he said, sipping coffee in the roomy Mar Vista home he shares with his children, Jasper, 7, Ryan, 5, and Rose, 2. "On Wednesday, the audience was rich. They came to bring stuff to the table. They extended themselves, I extended myself--and at the point where we met was this incredible ride."
The show, which grew out of the impromptu remarks Linke made at his wife's memorial service, is only partially scripted: "I have an outline and subjects I know I'm going to cover. So when I say, 'To chemo or not to chemo,' that's a whole series of ideas and subjects I want to share. But any of those ideas can trigger a new thought. I realized last night there's a whole aspect of letting go I've yet to deal with."
For Linke (familiar to TV audiences as Arnie Grossman, "the comic relief" on "CHiPS"), much of that healing is based on humor.
"I come from a place where it was good to make my mother laugh," he said. "So I started doing that early on. And Chex and I had an ability to laugh at things, the whole nine-plus years we were together. So when we got into this area of cancer and dying, that didn't leave us. I didn't do tumor humor to gross people out. I did it because I thought, 'Who would ever think that you could have your mate die in her middle 30s and there'd be laughs?' My strongest image is of her in bed with the oxygen, me sitting on the bed with her and sharing things that either resulted in us laughing or crying."
Accepting his own lack of control has also been a liberating factor.
"I saw this kid with cancer on 'Donahue,' and Phil was asking him, 'How does it feel to be 7 years old and know you're going to die?' The kid said, 'I guess it means I just got a shorter assignment.' See, I don't think you have to buy into the horribleness of it. I don't want to get too metaphysical here, but there is a kind of perfection in Francesca's death: a design, a reason for it. And there are lessons to be learned. If someone you love gets ill and dies, you can capitulate to it, get negative and bitter--or you can choose not to capitulate, be positive, try to grow from it. For me, this show is a way of getting well, moving on and letting go."
Which doesn't mean the pain ever disappears. "Grief is tricky," the actor admitted, recalling Ryan's first day of school last year. "I walked in and I saw some moms and I saw some moms and I saw some moms--and I totally lost it."
Without an emotional cue card, Linke is equally vulnerable on stage: "The other night when she died, I wept. It wasn't acting. I was looking at her, and she went. On the other hand, at the point where I'm mad at Jasper for knocking Ryan into the canal, I'm allowing myself to go back to those feelings and re-create them. So perhaps that's one area of acting. But I really think it's something else."
The "something else," he feels, is a performing ease gleaned from "hundred and hundreds of hours on stage talking to people" during his seven years as host of the Garden Theatre Festival in Los Angeles. "So the people at the theater really don't seem like strangers--and I guess I have the ability to make them not feel like strangers. And the response I'm getting from them is 'Thank you for sharing. It helps me.' Of course, no one really knows how anyone else feels; losing a mate can't be comparable to losing a parent or a child. But loss is loss."
Although he'd be proud to have this as his signature piece, Linke has no intention of ending the introspection here: "Are you kidding? I have lots of other things to talk about. My next piece is called 'Dating in the Material World.' There's so much to share in life."
And death. "Obviously, there's nothing more major or intense than the experience I went through with Francesca. How could there be? But what I'm saying here is, 'I'm OK. My kids are OK.' And one of the things I'm proudest of is that they've come out of this so loving. Out of the compost, flowers grow. That's what Chex used to put in the garden, and that's why she had beautiful flowers. Out of the pain of her death, good things do grow."