Finding The Humor In Gastrointestinal Distress

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With his wife and son as his audience, Jonathan Mirin performs a dress rehearsal in his living room of "28 Feet," his new play about Crohn's disease. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
With his wife and son as his audience, Jonathan Mirin performs a dress rehearsal in his living room of "28 Feet," his new play about Crohn's disease. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Twenty-eight feet. That's how much was left of Jonathan Mirin's digestive tract after a surgeon removed a foot-long section of his intestines a decade ago. It's also the name of his new, one-man play about his lifelong battle with Crohn's disease. The show, "28 Feet," which comes to the Boston Playwrights' Theatre this weekend, is part comedy, part musical, and part therapy session for anyone with a chronic illness.

SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass. — I'm in Jonathan Mirin's living room in western Massachusetts. Instead of just giving me a DVD of his latest play, he's offered to put on a private performance right here for me and his five-month-old son. The show's only about an hour long. So, really, how could I say no?

He begins to sing:

"I have something to tell you that's not easy to say — something about these cramps that don't seem to be going away..."

"28 Feet" is a solo performance, with Mirin singing and miming and acting the parts of about 20 different characters. In this scene, he's a college freshman at what turns out to be a fateful doctor's appointment.

"Hello, Dr. Holdinside, highly respected gastroenterologist," says Mirin, playing himself. "My symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, fatigue and intense cramping."

What comes next — acted out with puppets, thankfully — is a medical procedure that involves examining his colon with a flexible camera. The results are not good news.

"Jonathan, those red spots are what we call Crohn's disease," the doctor — also played by Mirin — reports. "Typically we start treatment with an anti-inflammatory called Sulfa."

Mirin had never heard of Crohn's when he was first diagnosed. It means your intestines are chronically inflamed. Doctors don't know the cause or the cure. It sometimes results in malnutrition because the body can't absorb nutrients in food. That's why Mirin is so skinny — about 120 pounds.

Turning Disease Into Theatre

Mirin is 38-years-old now and runs the tiny Piti Theatre Company in Shelburne Falls with his wife, Godolieve Richard. When they were tossing around ideas for a new show, he thought of his Crohn's and said, 'Why not?'

"My case was — I think they described it as a 'moderate' case," Mirin recalls. "I actually thought about that in the process of making this show, like, I am I going to make an hour-long big deal about my moderate case of Crohn's disease? There are one-person shows out there about cancer, you know?"

But he thought he could make the play entertaining and informative and a larger coming-of-age story with real audience appeal. Not that he didn't realize that marketing a performance about gastrointestinal distress could be a challenge.

"As soon as we finished the show and we were like, 'Okay, now we have to write the press release,' it was like — well," says Mirin. "I remember thinking, can I write this to kind of minimize the Crohn's part? Like, how do I emphasize the comedy and minimize the cramping?"

In this scene, he races through New York City trying to find a public restroom. That's one of the major downsides of having Crohn's: you never know when you'll suddenly have a flare-up and need a bathroom really, really badly.


The play describes Mirin's first decade after his diagnosis. He takes one drug after another: anti-inflammatories, immuno-suppressants, powerful steroids. None of them worked for long.

This song is about Mirin finding out that part of his intestines has to be surgically removed — or he may need a liquid diet for the rest of his life.

Bye, bye, valve
Bye, bye, intestine
Hello modern medicine
I think I'm gonna cry.

A New Approach To His Illness

By the end of the show, Mirin has changed his whole approach to his illness. He tries meditation and herbal remedies. He avoids eating wheat and sugar. And he says he hasn't had to take any medication since his surgery in 1999.

"There's this quote about journalism, I think," Mirin says. "It goes, 'Misery makes good copy.' That's why, as soon as I sort of make the turn towards getting better, the play ends shortly after that. Because who wants to watch 10 years of some guy getting better, you know? Nobody."

But he hopes people will want to watch 10 years of some guy being sick and somehow finding the humor in his illness.

This program aired on April 9, 2010.

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Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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