By Tulis McCall
First of all, if you EVER get a chance to attend an event at the Park Avenue Armory – just go. Don’t bother questioning the entertainment. This building will pull you into the 19th century in a heartbeat. Sweeping staircases. Ceilings that are so high you cannot imagine how they cleaned up there in the late 1800’s. In addition they have stepped into the present by spiffing up the bathrooms with separate enclosed stalls so that women and men share the same facility without a fuss.
“The Doctor” as well as the Park Avenue Armory are worth your time. The not so subtle message is that “We are not who we appear to be.” This case is made literally by casting across gender and race, all except for the main character Dr. Ruth Wolff (a brilliant Juliet Stevenson). Dr. Wolff is a buttoned down head of everything at her hospital/clinic that is deep into research on a cure for Alzheimer’s. An unexpected patient has arrived suffering from sepsis due to a botched abortion. The girl is 14, and there are no instructions for her care specified because the parents are out of town and on their way back. When a priest shows up to give the Last Rights Wolff refuses him entrance on the grounds that the girl is heavily sedated and peaceful. A visit from the priest will let her know she is dying and probably cause distress. There are no medical notes requesting Last Rites and the parents have not communicated with the doctor. The priest is denied access and when he presses the point the Dr. touches him (we do not see this) and the world explodes.
We are dropped into an ethical argument of religion vs. medicine that escalates so quickly we feel like we are in a wind tunnel. This production’s technical aspects are meticulous, however, and much of the time we are guided by its precision.
The second act delves deeper into Wolff’s life both at home and in the public. She appears on a television inquiry program that goes off the rails. There is a mysterious young woman Sami (Matilda Tucker) who slides in and out of the picture. Wolff’s lover Charlie (Juliet Garricks) – male or female is not specified and by this time we are used to that – appears as a ghost who brings out the heart of the stony Wolff. The hospital passes judgement on the worth of Wolff’s presence, and she is left on her own listening to the echo of her singular voice.
It should be noted that the original play, “Professor Berhardi” by the Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler was written in 1912. If you think the ideas raised her are challenging – go back 100 years when women wore corsets, could not vote, and gave up rights to children and property when married. Must have been quite a kerfuffle.
I am still thinking about this play – which says something. My only criticism is Robert Icke’s choice to cast against race and gender. For a play filled with so many philosophical challenges, emotional switchbacks and spiritual debates, to add the confusion of race and gender makes the audience work unnecessarily hard. This play is by its nature a challenge – and for me a welcome one – no need to pile on more elements that come close to burying us with our own questions.
The ideas in this play are not new, but they are newly laid out. And of course in this political climate of fake news and lies as truths they are still relevant.
Here is another version of same by Rudyard Kipling (1895)
The more things change the more things stay the same?
The Doctor – Very freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s “Professor Bernhardi” by Robert Icke
WITH Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun, Doña Croll, Juliet Garricks, Preeya Kalidas, Mariah Louca, John MacKay, Daniel Rabin, Jaime Schwarz, Juliet Stevenson, Matilda Tucker, Naomi Wirthner, and Hannah Ledwidgeon drums
Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler, Lighting by Natasha Cheevers, Sound Design and Composition by Tom Gibbons
at the Park Avenue Armonty through August 19th. Tickets can be found HERE