Mary Virginia Lipple, who wrote and performed a play about a woman with cancer, only to be diagnosed with the disease herself several months later, died Sunday at her home in Churchill. The cause was brain cancer, said her husband, Roy Smetana. She was 40.
Ms. Lipple found success in the Pittsburgh theater scene as an actress and playwright in the 1990s. She performed in Shakespeare in the Schools, a City Theatre outreach play about Matthew Shepard, and at Gemini Theater in productions of her own plays, "Soul Mate Dating Service" and a children's play, "Who's Alfreda Everything?"
She was also involved in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival, winning several acting and writing awards. In 1998, Post-Gazette theater critic Chris Rawson described her as athletic and "whirlpool limber" in the role of a dim-bulb hooker.
After her children were born, Ms. Lipple withdrew from the theater world to stay home with them.
"She loved theater with a passion," said her husband, a psychiatric resident at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. "But she never gave it a second thought compared to being with the kids, reading and playing, loving and nurturing."
In October 2011, Ms. Lipple emerged from nearly full-time motherhood with a one-woman play she'd been writing at home. "Blackbird Pie," at the Gray Box Theater in Lawrenceville, featured Ms. Lipple as a woman who is dying of breast cancer, recording a video of herself for her young daughter to play on her 12th birthday.
"Her tumor was discovered two months later," said her husband.
The character in the play wrestles with whether to stop her treatment or continue it, with all its ill effects on her quality of life. In the end she tells her husband she's decided to end her suffering by taking her own life.
In real life, Ms. Lipple did stop treatment due to its debilitating effects, but she died in hospice care.
"She would have preferred a quicker end than she got," said Dr. Smetana.
Ms. Lipple grew up in Altoona, Blair County. She graduated from Altoona Area High School and earned a bachelor of arts degree in theater at Penn State University in State College. After graduation she moved to Pittsburgh to further her acting career, then went on to Chicago for its larger theater scene.
After a few years she was accepted into the Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training at Florida State University in Sarasota, where she completed her master's of fine arts in acting in 2005. Later that year she married Dr. Smetana in Chicago. They moved to Pittsburgh in 2009 for his residency program. By then they had two small children.
"With Mary, there were no elephants in the room," said Dr. Smetana. "It was always, 'Let's talk about this.' She was very cut-to-the-chase and always very funny. One colleague said talking to her was like being on 'Oprah.' "
Ms. Lipple did not make a recording for her children to watch when they were older, but there is an audio recording of "Blackbird Pie."
"Aspects of the play are autobiographical," said her husband. "Her legacy to them is in there."
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her parents, Thomas and JoAnne Lipple of Altoona; a daughter, Josephina, 6; a son, August, 4; and two brothers, Joseph Lipple of Pittsburgh and Thomas Lipple Jr. of Alexandria, Va.
Visitation will be in Altoona from 2 to 7 p.m. today at Stevens Mortuary, 1421 Eighth Ave. A funeral Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, Altoona.
The family suggests donations to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, UPMC Cancer Pavilion, Suite 1B, 5150 Centre Ave., Pittsburgh 15232, or the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grants, 810 Penn Ave., Suite 200, Pittsburgh 15222.
Sally Kalson: email@example.com or 412-263-1610.