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On opening night of the Modesto Junior College production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” last week, Virginia Barr watched in tears from the audience.
She wasn’t alone. Victor Hugo’s tale of the titular, tormented Quasimodo, kindhearted dancer Esmeralda and cruel Archdeacon Claude Dom Frollo is a tragic one.
But Virginia was most overwhelmed by the narrator, Sister Simone. And she wept more in joy and pride than in sorrow for the story. Because the role of the sister is played by Virginia’s 60-year-old mother, Carol, who over the past two decades has recovered remarkably from a brain-damaging crash and twice has overcome cancer and the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments needed to battle it.
“She cried when I walked out on stage, just simply because, you know, it was an achievement,” Carol recalled of opening night.
“Because I remember you in a wheelchair, unable to talk,” Virginia replied from across a dining table in the Turlock home the mother and daughter share. “Because I had a doctor tell me that we were lucky that she lived at all, and that walking and speaking were going to be great achievements, if achieved at all.”
It was in 2001 that then-Sacramento resident Carol was in a crosswalk when struck by a car. She remembers nothing of the crash but learned she was carried on the car’s hood for about 30 yards and fell off when the driver braked.
Carol woke up in the UC Davis Medical Center trauma ward. Her brain injury caused aphasia, which made it very difficult for Carol to understand or express speech. She also suffered memory loss. “I didn’t remember people — I still don’t. I have like a Swiss cheese memory. I still don’t remember blocks of time.”
A 19-year-old college student at the time, Virginia got a call that her mom, a single parent, had been badly hurt. She arrived at the medical center to find her very confused. Virginia later learned some of the confusion was because Carol believed her daughter to be much younger.
“Mom’s missing a good 15 years of my life,” she said. “She doesn’t remember my graduation. She doesn’t remember taking me to school my first day. She doesn’t remember a great deal.”
At the time, the Barrs were warned by medical professionals they should expect little recovery. Carol, whose warm voice served her well as a radio personality on radio station KOSO-93.1 in the ’80s, was crushed.
The first six months or so after the crash had some scary moments — things like Carol turning on a stove burner, then walking away and forgetting she’d done so. The period was full of frustrations, such as by the end of watching a movie, not remembering how it began.
About a year after the crash, Carol was diagnosed with cervical cancer, but was given an all-clear after surgery. Eleven years after that, she learned she had Stage 3C metastatic breast cancer, which was immensely harder to be rid of.
“Chemotherapy greatly affects your brain. They don’t really tell you that,” said Virginia, who’s been a teacher at Turlock High School for 15 years. Her mother had made great progress in cognition and short-term memory, and the “chemo fog,” as they call it, was a big setback. Mother and daughter would watch programs on repeat because it was “comforting and soothing” to Carol. Carol would exercise her brain by listening to audiobooks and watching long documentaries, then talking with her daughter about their content.
“I’m completing my master’s in education,” Virginia said. “So my big thing was to gauge exactly how long her memory was going and how much information she can retain, ascertain, analyze and synthesize. And we discovered that audio plus visual worked best.”
Carol always has been an audio learner, she said. Not that she had a lot of education. She was a “throwaway kid” whose mom abandoned her and her sister when they were young teens. She never went to high school, she said, and lived in foster care and on the streets until earning her GED and joining the Air Force.
So when she decided to take classes at MJC, she and Virginia initially chose courses available online so Carol could take as much time as she needed to read the text over and over. Audiobooks also have played a big part.
Carol has a goal to narrate professionally, including doing voice work for commercials, cartoons, video games and audiobooks. She plans to transfer from MJC to CSU Stanislaus to study theater.
In a theater class at MJC taught by Lynette Borrelli-Glidewell, Carol caught the attention of another instructor, Michael Lynch, who adapted and directed “Hunchback.” He was judging students in a monologue competition and was impressed by Carol’s performance.
Lynch was working on his adaptation and thought she’d be perfect as Sister Simone, he said. He told Carol as much, encouraging her to audition when the time came.
“I told him right upfront, ‘You know, I have brain damage that really comes out when I’m trying to speak, especially when I do narration,’ which is really funny because that’s what I want to do,” she recalled.
The two worked together over the summer as Lynch formed the character. Carol said the writer-director was very patient with her, and when she eventually auditioned, she got the part.
He said she’s been “letter-perfect” in the production. Far from the animated Disney musical, Lynch’s play is dark and faithful to the novel. Everybody absolutely loves Carol’s voice, which is even more powerful when she’s miked, he said.
“Its mellifluous rhythm is what the audience needs to get us back in the moment,” Lynch said. “As the narrator, she’s wonderful. As a person, she’s wonderful.”
After her crash, Carol was told she might never regain the ability to memorize. But with perseverance, she has. For “Hunchback,” she recorded her lines and listens to them the day of each performance. She also does an “audio blackout,” not listening to songs or audiobooks, lest something gets stuck in her head.
Because Carol has worried that she’ll forget lines, Lynch allows her to use on stage what appears to be Sister Simone’s prayer book but actually has them written in it. The director calls it “a little safety device.”
Carol is on and off the stage from start to end, and her lines total more than 12 minutes, she said. With all that, she does have moments where she can’t recall what comes next. She’ll glance into the prayer book, but Lynch has asked around and no one seems to even notice.
It sounds like being in “Hunchback” has Carol on Cloud Nine. After performances, cast members go to the auditorium lobby to mingle with the audience, and “I’ve had a lot of people come up and tell me ‘Oh, your voice is just so wonderful.’ It’s been terrific,” she said.
It’s been terrific for Virginia, too. “Watching her go on stage and being able to do this after watching her fight for so long, it was just the epitome of happiness. It was everything it was supposed to be.”
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”
When: Oct. 31 and Nov. 1-2 at 7 p.m., Nov. 3 at 2 p.m.
Where: Auditorium, Performing Arts Center, Modesto Junior College East Campus, 435 College Ave.
Tickets: $11 general, $9 students (all schools) and seniors 62 and older. Tickets are available online, at the MJC box office and at the door beginning 90 minutes prior to each performance.