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Theatre in Review: The Line (The Public Theater Online)

Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, John Ortiz. Photo: Courtesy of the Public Theater.

In an awful way, The Line premiered at exactly the right moment: as the rest of the country outside the Northeast is backsliding, with surging rates of infection and rising death tolls, this documentary piece presents the experiences of seven frontline healthcare workers in the purgatorial first days of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, playwrights whose fine-tuned ear and sharp editorial skills resulted in such probing works as The Exonerated and last season's Coal Country, have assembled a gripping testimonial, drawn from interviews, that exposes the ghastly details of a hospital system unprepared for a global crisis; it also has plenty to say about how the coronarvirus has laid bare so many social fault lines.

The characters include Oscar, an ambulance driver; Sharon, a nurse who "fell in love with the gerrys," meaning geriatric patients, and works in a home for the elderly; Dwight, a Trinidadian nurse in a cancer ward; David, an actor-turned-nurse who finds that his knack for "awareness without judgment," picked up in studies at the Stella Adler Studio, is invaluable when caring for patients; Jennifer, a first-year intern serving a poor, mostly minority Brooklyn neighborhood; Ed, a middle-aged paramedic whose résumé includes stints in Afghanistan; and Vikram, an ER doctor who picked up the coronavirus on vacation in Asia -- and who, better than most, knows what his patients are suffering.

At first, the coronavirus is a mere rumor; soon it is testing each of them severely. Dwight insists, "I don't believe you can be an oncology nurse and have quote-unquote professional distance, because you cannot be compassionate, cannot be kind, cannot be empathetic, unless you experience those emotions with them." But soon he is forced to turn family members away, even as some of his patients -- already critically weakened by cancer -- are left to die alone. Jennifer recalls a patient with worrisome vital signs: "They sent him for a CAT scan. And they found the ground glass opacities in both lungs, which is the key for COVID. They had to shut down the CAT scan for six hours to clean it, and we only have one."

The pandemic quickly becomes an all-hands-on-deck situation, demanding that anyone with medical training take part. David recalls, "My best friend, who's an orthopedic surgeon, went to an acute medicine floor. My dermatologist went to an ICU!" Oscar remembers, appalled, how the volume of emergency calls began jumping by a thousand a day. Dwight reports taking over all aspects of patients' care as other staffers become afraid of infection: "We nurses will go into the room, get the garbage and bring it out to the door; we were in there doing what we had to do for these patients, because that's what nursing is. Cleaning, taking food, touching them. No one else would go in. We were like, Wait a minute, are we expendable?"

The details become increasingly horrifying. Vikram describes the difficulty of intubating a patient -- not an easy process on a good day -- in the middle of ER chaos that includes CPR and a double-stabbing victim spurting blood everywhere. Supplies run dangerously low. "We ran out of oxygen," Jennifer says, unbelievingly. "Just straight-up oxygen. I really did feel like I was in another country." With no capacity left, she sends patients home, telling them to isolate, only to hear responses like, "Okay, well, we live in a one-bedroom with my grandmother, my grandfather, my mom, my dad, what do you think I should do?"

And, of course, illness comes calling for some of them. Vikram, describing how he became winded when running with his lover, says, "When he touched my shoulders, I screamed. It felt like he'd put salt water on a wound." Sharon suffers a bout of the disease, then returns to work, only "to discover that half of my population is gone. Wiped out." David, losing a beloved uncle, sees the entire Jewish funeral ritual reduced to "one Zoom Shiva." The days unfold with no relief in sight; as Ed notes, "I was in Iraq in 2017 workin' the front lines in Mosul, and we were under fire, but it only lasted three days. COVID lasted weeks, and it's invisible. To me, if I can mitigate danger I feel like I have some control, I can adapt to the environment. But COVID, there's nothin' to adapt to, it's just everywhere."

They are, to a person, candid, bluntly unsentimental, totally resistant to being called heroes. Sharon makes short work of a grief counselor assigned to her staff, saying, "They've already dealt with their emotions and they've already put them away and now you want us to rip off a band-aid and what, she's coming for one day?" "Now we're heroes," says David. "What the fuck do you think we were doing before all of this?" Dwight adds that it's easy to canonize doctors and nurses while ignoring poorly paid, mostly minority essential workers: "Environmental services, they had to come in. Food services, they had to come in. The security guards had to come in. Cleaning people. And they are just forgotten."

Blank, who also directed, has assembled a company that renders the characters' torn, conflicting emotions with uncanny skill. Santino Fontana's David is funny and likable, yet stopped cold by unexpected rushes of grief. Arjun Gupta gives Vikram a laser-like focus that barely disguises his indignation at a healthcare system gone wrong. John Ortiz's Oscar is jazzed with an energy that evolves into a stunned assessment of a situation spinning out of control. Alison Pill's Jennifer, her face faintly bruised from personal protective equipment, is poleaxed with exhaustion and a creeping sense of failure. Jamey Sheridan is the most stoic of the bunch -- and, in some ways, the most observant when he describes wartime conditions in the ER. Lorraine Toussaint captures Sharon's fierce devotion to her patients as well as her fear that, having become infected, she will pass the coronavirus on to her husband, children, and grandchildren, all of whom live with her.

Underneath all the accounts is a pained awareness that the American healthcare system is unequal, ill-equipped, and all but primed to buckle in a crisis. Vikram says, "While I appreciate the clapping at 7pm and I appreciate the pizza that gets sent to the ER and I appreciate the discounts on, like, Nike, or whatever, I would give all of that up. If you really want to help doctors, and show them appreciation, give their patients healthcare, you know?" Commenting on the essential workers who could not stay at home, he adds, "Through this whole thing, our economy has been on the backs of the black and brown people who couldn't escape that vulnerability." And, as Ed says, "The federal government abandoned New York, and they have American blood on their hands."

At every turn, The Line cuts through the nonsense being peddled daily by the president and his enablers about a crisis that has brought this nation to its knees. For that reason alone, it is essential viewing. See it -- and pray that it isn't a preview of things to come. -- David Barbour

(13 July 2020)

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