Ron Tochterman didn’t feel too well after his infusion late last month. His chemotherapy, administered intravenously, left him tired, itchy and nauseous.
But that didn’t stop the retired Sacramento judge-turned-playwright from showing up that night to watch a rehearsal of his play, set to show later this month in the 49-seat William J. Geery Theater in midtown. After several years of writing scripts inspired by his lengthy legal career and amid a battle with leukemia now in remission, Tochterman will finally get to see one of his plays open in his hometown.
“It’s great to have something that boosts your spirits,” Tochterman said of his play. “I just decided I’m going to be positive and fight this (disease) to the max.”
Tochterman, 79, said he’s been determined to keep his outlook up since a doctor told him this February he had only two or three weeks to live. He’s cancer-free after enrolling in experimental treatments through a clinical trial.
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“His passion and dedication and stamina for the project (have) just been incredible to watch, a real inspiration,” said Alan Truax, the Sacramento playwright behind the local group producing Tochterman’s work, Genesis Productions. “Shows you that no matter how ill you are, if you take a positive attitude, you’ve got better chance of overcoming it.”
“The Rules of Law: A Trial Trilogy” consists of three one-act plays that take place in either a courtroom, a lawyer’s office or a judge’s chambers. All are based loosely on cases that Tochterman prosecuted, presided over or heard about during his legal tenure. One draws on his experience returning to the bench a year after first retiring in 1999: Tochterman said it’s about “a grumpy retired judge” who “makes a comeback.”
Several thousand dollars of the show’s proceeds will go toward the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a nonprofit combating blood cancer.
Truax and Tochterman both belong to Playwrights Collaborative, a local group of writers, directors and other theater enthusiasts who meet monthly to discuss scripts. When Truax solicited plays for Genesis Productions, which exclusively produces work by Sacramento-area playwrights using local actors and directors, he found himself with some 25 scripts to consider – including Tochterman’s.
Truax called Tochterman about six months ago to say he wanted to produce the former judge’s work in 2018.
Tochterman, explaining his diagnosis, said he wasn’t sure if he’d live that long.
“I said, ‘Well, you just went to the top of the list,’ ” said Truax, who fast-tracked the show for September.
Tochterman’s play was originally scheduled for seven shows Sept. 15-17 and Sept. 21-24. But with $25 tickets for the small showings sold out, Truax is selling discounted dress rehearsal tickets and working on moving the final performance to a larger venue. Genesis Productions shows have filled up before, but “we’ve never come so close so fast,” he said.
He and Tochterman both attributed the interest in the show to Tochterman’s deep roots in the Sacramento community, where the former judge and his wife grew up.
Tochterman, who retired from his judgeship in 2011, spent 32 years of his legal career as a Sacramento Superior Court judge. He also taught law at a variety of schools and served as a prosecutor for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office.
Tochterman drew controversy on the bench. In a 2006 case that drew Associated Press coverage, he rejected a request to delay the prison release of Timothy Lee Boggs, a convicted sexual predator whom state officials kept 14 months past the end of his sentence because they couldn’t arrange housing for him.
Tochterman ruled that Boggs could go free and find his own housing – a decision unpopular with many who raised Boggs’ threat to the community.
“I recognize that there is a significant danger that Mr. Boggs may reoffend,” Tochterman said, according to AP. “On the other hand, he has paid his debt to society, and then some.”
In 2009, The Bee reported that Tochterman rankled local prosecutors, who alleged Tochterman was biased against them and got him disqualified from hearing nine trials in the space of two months. Lawyers who defended Tochterman called him “fair and impartial but occasionally prickly,” as The Bee put it.
Tochterman said he began writing creatively as part of his teaching, crafting fictional court scenes that he dissected for students at the California Center for Judicial Education and Research. An avid fiction reader, he also spun tales for his four grandchildren.
In 2010, Tochterman and a friend challenged each other to each write a play. Tochterman went on to write 10 plays, seven of which have been produced at one-act theater festivals around the country. “The Rules of Law: A Trial Trilogy” will be his local debut.
The play will open as Tochterman continues to recover. When he was diagnosed earlier this year, doctors told him he was too old to go through typical chemotherapy treatments. His only hope was joining a clinical trial. It was either that or “go home and die,” Tochterman said.
Within a month of treatment through a trial at UC Davis, Tochterman said, his cancer was in complete remission. He continues his chemotherapy, though, in case of relapse and because his blood may still harbor cancer that isn’t detected. That means he still experiences side effects like fatigue and gives “elbow bumps” in lieu of handshakes to protect his weakened immune system.
But Tochterman said he’s done his best not to let the treatments slow him down. The self-declared “exercise fiend” was thrilled to get back to the gym late this spring, albeit for three days a week rather than his previous six. He’s been to many play rehearsals so far, and he plans to attend every showing – in part to make sure he greets all the people who are coming out to support him and have helped him throughout his diagnosis.
“My friends have been wonderful,” he said.
‘The Rules of Law: A Trial Trilogy’
When: Sept. 15-17, Sept. 21-24 (evening shows Thursdays-Saturdays, matinees Sundays)
Where: William J. Geery Theater, 2130 L St., Sacramento
Information: 916-521-9959. Call for show times. wjgeerytheater.com