What do you do when your very full life is stopped cold with a stroke? Create a one-woman show, of course! In what is undoubtedly the most remarkable performance of the year, actress Farley Cardena returned to the stage this week, a little more than nine months after suffering a debilitating stroke that not only threatened her career, but also her life. You’d have to know Farley to understand how this tiny ball of fire would not let something like a few clogged arteries get her down. On October 3, Farley roared back with Stroke of Luck, a self-penned, one-woman musical that evokes tears, laughs, and all emotions in between, in the first of two scheduled performances at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
For many years, Farley Cadena has been a familiar presence on the Ventura County theater scene, starring in such shows as Annie (Miss Hannigan), The Producers (Hold Me, Touch Me), Oliver! (The Widow Corney), and Thoroughly Modern Millie (Mrs. Meers). Her career began at age nine when she performed in a musicalized version of Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. From the very beginning, Cadena knew her life would be in the theater. She went through her day-to-day activities much like Jim Carrey did in The Truman Show. “I always played to the camera,” she recalls during the show. At age 37, Cadena decided her years as a leading lady were over and she began to embrace character roles. A self-described fearless performer and “theater dork,” Cadena met her second husband Felix in an elevator while starting work at PBS television station KCET. Cadena credits Felix’s loving care and quiet support with helping her recover from her stroke, which Cadena, a political junkie, believes was partially caused by her virulent hatred of Donald Trump.
Subtitled How My Brain Broke and I Crawled Back, the show, which is masterfully directed by Kirsten Chandler, features a bevy of familiar songs from musical theatre history, hand-picked with some lyrical tweaks, to help Cadena document her life, beginning when she was growing up as Farley Henry in the South Bay city of Torrance.
The songs included in Stroke of Luck are all statements of defiance from shows with strong female characters. Jason Robert Brown’s “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” (Songs for a New World), Jerry Herman’s “It’s Today” (Mame), and Stephen Sondheim and Jules Styne’s “Some People” (Gypsy) are familiar to most theater audiences, but Cadena also included other, more obscure numbers, such as the brilliant “A Way Back to Then” from the 2009 one-act musical Title of Show, “I Shall Scream,” one of the lesser known songs from Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, and most effective of all, Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress. After tumultuous applause and cheers from her opening night audience, Cadena delivered another gem, “I’m Still Here,” from Sondheim’s Follies, as an encore. Cadena is accompanied by her capable and sensitive music director, pianist Anthony Zediker.
Cadena’s life flashbacks begin with a startling, frightening sequence in which she relives the surreal moments immediately following her stroke, illuminated on stage by a single spotlight. Enveloped in darkness, she tries to talk, but her words are slurred. “It’s a humbling thing to have your brain not work,” Cadena said during an after-show talkback session. Prior to her stroke, Cadena complained of eye migraines, one of which occurred while driving, in which she actually lost vision in one of her eyes. Last December 20, Cadena woke up disoriented and unable to speak. It was as if she had tunnel vision; everything was blurred and it was difficult to focus on her surroundings. “I tried to think, but I couldn’t come out of it.” Cadena had suffered a cryptogenic, ischemic stroke, caused by arterial blood clots. About 87 percent of of all strokes are ischemic. For months, she was unable to read or speak clearly, but Stroke of Luck, which she began working on “when I didn’t know I could do it,” undoubtedly played a major role in her recovery. Although her performance shows no evidence of her symptoms, Cadena still has difficulty reading to this day, which remains her chief frustration.
Stroke of Luck is not only a well-written, brilliantly performed, and emotionally powerful show, it is uniquely personal. Cadena not only shows resilience in her ability to defeat the effects of her illness, but monumental courage in revisiting, head-on, the harrowing days and months after suffering her stroke. The show’s printed program includes a list of valuable facts about stroke, including definitions, prevention guidelines, and warning signs, compiled by the National Stroke Association. For those who missed this remarkable performance or who will be unable to attend the second show on October 10, Cadena is working on re-staging Stroke of Luck in the future, hopefully somewhere in Ventura County.
The El Portal Theatre is located at 5269 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. For tickets, visit www.luck.brownpapertickets.com