By Cynthia Darling
Amanda Nicastro has a story to share, and it’s a tale often reserved for doctors’ charts or intimate conversations between family members or close friends. Ms. Nicastro seeks to bring narratives of organ donation beyond private spaces, and so she has taken her personal experience with kidney donation to the stage in “I’m Just Kidneying.”
Ms. Nicastro’s motivation for writing and staging this show is close to her heart: her sister has been the recipient of two kidney transplants. The first was from their father, but when that kidney needed replacing, Ms. Nicastro herself stepped up to donate. She participated in what’s called a paired donation; since Ms. Nicastro’s blood type didn’t match her sister’s, the donation involved two donors who wished to give to loved ones with different blood types. The two pairs of donors and recipients were matched together. Ms. Nicastro donated to a complete stranger, and her sister received a kidney from a complete stranger. Yet together, they became an intimately connected group of four.
The show is truly educational; it not only presents interesting facts about donation, but also reveals the difficult emotional and physical toll the process takes. For a kidney to be removed, the intestine has to be pumped full of gas to float the kidney out. Doing so leaves, well, as Ms. Nicastro says, a lot of gas. She proclaims that she is a world‑class farter. Noting that she participated in two 24‑hour urine collections, Ms. Nicastro also boasts that she produced a heroic amount of urine. She recalls traveling on the subway with a picnic cooler full of it. Such honesty is disarming and a wonderful element of the show.
Light moments are counterbalanced by poignancy. Ms. Nicastro states quite passionately that if there’s anyone who is a hero here, it is her sister. Her sister wanted to be part of a paired donation because she knew that they would be helping someone else out; she didn’t just want to go on the donor list to receive an organ through the direct route. (Another interesting fact: after the donation, the donor’s remaining kidney grows larger. It is called the “proud” organ.)
Ms. Nicastro’s account of trying to play the donor card is funny, as well. She is tempted to bring it up at any time—to get out of a parking ticket, for instance—and imagines going on Letterman to speak about her heroic act. Another amusing story concerns Ms. Nicastro’s night spent under anesthetic. She flashes the hospital staff, and tells them she is ready to take the train home by herself. By contrast, Ms. Nicastro’s story about the frustration she felt while nurses searched for her veins communicates the discomfort of the moment. She uses red dot stickers to show all of the painful pricks and digs that nurses did before actually finding a vein. Her observation that black nurses are better at finding veins than white nurses proved a bit awkward onstage.
The show is most comfortable with an anecdotal and picaresque tone, and its lighthearted stories don’t always seem to build toward a larger meaning, theme, or deeper insight about organ donation. I wish we got to know Ms. Nicastro’s younger sister better, so that we could be more emotionally invested in the successful outcome of her operation. Also welcome would have been a deeper exploration of the two sisters’ relationship, and how it may have evolved during the time leading up to the kidney donation, and afterwards.
At heart, the show is a comedy, and many moments resonate. A pre‑surgery “poopsplosion” scene, as Ms. Nicastro calls it, packs the biggest punch comedically. She describes taking laxatives, but getting no results. Her living donor coordinator, Rhonda, advises her to take a bit more. Cue the flashing red lights, the thunderous sound of what can only be the laxatives working, all ending with the startling sound of the alarm on the morning of the surgery. Sound effects are used throughout—from a laugh track making fun of Ms. Nicastro’s dreams of grandeur, to a soundscape complementing her memories of canoeing with her sister in a bioluminescent lake. Lighting also enhances key moments, adding dramatic touches to the scenes.
Unexpectedly, the show takes a turn toward the political when Ms. Nicastro describes John and Melissa, the couple also participating in the shared donation. This is an excellent meditation on division and connection in our society today. Learning that John is a Trump supporter tests Ms. Nicastro’s feelings of empathy and friendship. But Ms. Nicastro realizes that even someone with whom she passionately disagrees can make the same selfless sacrifice she has made. Such insights remind us that we are in the presence of an actor, comedian, and writer working at her craft to pursue one of the goals of great theater: bridging differences and bringing people together.
“I’m Just Kidneying”
Written and Performed by Amanda Nicastro
May 19 – June 16, 2019
Photo Credit: Giancarlo Osaben
Under St. Mark’s Theater
94 Saint Mark’s Place
New York City
CYNTHIA DARLING is a writer and teacher living in Hell’s Kitchen. A writer for NAfME’s Teaching Music magazine for many years, she also wrote for New York Family magazine. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing with the Bluegrass Writers Studio. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Louisiana Literature, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Wanderlust Journal.