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Theatre in Review: The Doctor (Park Avenue Armory)

Juliet Stevenson, Matilda Tucker. Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory.

The Doctor is based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1912 drama Professor Bernhardi, but it takes a direct and deadly aim at the identity crisis currently plaguing the West. The title character, Ruth Wolff, is an astonishingly accomplished physician, the head of a research hospital dedicated to curing Alzheimer's disease. With an arrogance earned by her record of success, she is a fearsome presence, correcting her colleagues' grammar and diagnoses with equal bluntness. (Not for nothing is she nicknamed "BB," as in "Big Bad.") Loved she isn't, but, with support from wealthy donors and the government, she can regard with satisfaction at plans for a new building that will advance her goals.

Played by Juliet Stevenson with a precision that cuts through nonsense like a lathe and a laser-like focus on the heart of any discussion, Ruth is both an inspiration and a focus of resentment to those who work with her. Yet, even when running roughshod on others, she insists they are a team; her achievements are theirs. Unfortunately, the obverse of that proposition proves to be true when she makes a decision that touches a cultural tripwire, igniting a controversy that threatens to consume her and her institute.

It arises from a simple procedural dispute that spins out of control. A fourteen-year-old girl is admitted with a bad case of sepsis -- which, we later learn, has been caused by a botched abortion. Her chances of survival are nil and Ruth, the admitting physician, wants only to keep her comfortable and peaceful until the end. A priest appears, claiming to represent the parents, who are traveling; he is ready to deliver the last rites. But Ruth will not allow it; she cannot confirm his identity and, furthermore, even if the parents are Catholic, the patient's religious status remains unknown. The encounter grows tense, with Ruth physically pushing back. Meanwhile, the girl, aware of the ruckus outside her room, dies in a state of upset.

Ruth considers the matter closed, but the story gets circulated, petitions are signed, pro-life groups start mixing in, and soon, secondhand news accounts appear in newspapers. A PR consultant advises sitting tight but the situation continues to escalate, causing hospital board members to resign. Even worse, the girl's father punches Ruth, her car is defaced with a swastika, and her home is subject to vandalism. At the same time, her colleagues take advantage of her notoriety to advance their own agendas. A fellow doctor offers his support if Ruth accepts his chosen candidate for a plum position. When she resists, he intimates that she, a secular Jew, is prejudiced against Catholics; more charges and counter-charges follow and soon the entire staff is mired in religious controversy.

If The Doctor starts out straightforwardly, playwright Robert Icke has a couple of curveballs at the ready. Only belatedly is it clear that the incident with the priest has a racial component; this is because one only gradually realizes that all the characters (except for Ruth) are played by actors cast against race and/or gender. It's an especially cunning gambit, forcing us to realize that Ruth's seemingly enlightened attitude -- claiming to see others only in terms of their ideas and actions -- may cloak (or, at the very least, create the appearance of) unconscious prejudices.

Adding a tingling note of suspense is the enigmatic depiction of Ruth's domestic life. She is often seen in remarkably candid conversations with Sami, a teenager, who, among other things, enjoys discussing her school sexual encounters. Also on hand is Ruth's partner, Charley, a mild-mannered, yet watchful, presence who pointedly notes that she remains a secret to Ruth's colleagues. Strangely, Sami and Charley often occupy the same space without acknowledging each other. Who are they really? Are they in the here and now? How do they impinge on Ruth's career crisis?

The answers, when they come, are nothing less than devastating; by then, Ruth has endured a public tribunal of sorts, being grilled on a television public affairs program by panelists representing various interest groups. (For the first time, the actors play their actual race and/or gender.) Stevenson is stunning throughout but especially gripping is the sight of her face, writ large on the set thanks to live video, as Ruth grapples with questions that she is supremely unequipped to answer, having spent her adult life ignoring them. It's typical of Icke's double-edged approach that, even as the interview threatens to descend into a babel of competing agendas, Ruth is caught by a truth to which she has no response. "I've only said...twenty times so far this evening, but I don't think I'm part of a group," she insists. One interlocutor replies, "I wish that was something I was able to say. But people force me to remember the group I belong to when I walk down the street...You get to ignore your groups -- as a white woman of a certain age, of a certain class -- because you're in the elite group."

This scene lays bare the complex, ugly truth at the heart of The Doctor: In the matter at hand, Ruth might be right on points, but her handling of it (including the use of a racially charged insult) is emotionally tone-deaf; furthermore, her combative manner, her casual dismissal of others' deeply held beliefs, leave her open to charges she insists are unjust. But are they? Isn't ignoring prejudice tantamount to letting it flourish? But what is the point of reckoning that proves to be as destructive and self-defeating as this?

Icke, who also directed, keeps the action moving at an explosive pace, aided by an exceptionally assured company. Stevenson, who is nothing less than monumental, enters verbal combat with relish, her fury at accusations of prejudice and favoritism reaching extraordinary heights. (She has humor, too: "I am trending," she notes, dryly, staring at her phone, before attacking that statement's inelegant construction.) She also reveals a remarkable vulnerability, taking part in an intimate dance with Charley and, later, discovering, to her horror, that she may have thoughtlessly betrayed Charley. After the storms have passed and her fate is sealed, she takes part in a carefully considered post-mortem with the priest, her former antagonist, displaying a new humility and wonder. And, at a moment of supreme crisis, she circles the stage at a furious clip in a state of fear mingled with fury, seemingly trying to outrun the forces that threaten to devour her. That she can blend all these emotional colors into a single coherent portrait is proof of her peerless skill.

In the generally excellent supporting cast, standouts include Juliet Garricks, a most appealing enigma as Charlie, Naomi Wirthner as the wiliest of Ruth's colleagues, wielding outrage as a weapon; John Mackay as both the priest and the deceased's father; Matilda Tucker, winsome and faintly mysterious as Sami, and Preeya Kalidas as a pragmatic Parliament minister who is happy to support Ruth and just as happy to throw her to the wolves Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun shines as a doctor who, offering a blistering attack on identity politics, asserts, "If we do not stem the bleed of this biographical nonsense then it will drown us in a flood of blood types and birthplaces and the kind of things we like to do in bed."

The production design is marked by clean lines and a sense of urgency. Hildegarde Bechtler's set, with its curving walls and spare furnishings, functions as a kind of arena for gladiatorial intellectual battles. Overhead is a drumkit from which a performer delivers the percussive beat of sound designer Tom Gibbons's underscoring. Natasha Chivers' finely tuned lighting is notable for its graceful transitions between warm and cold tones, with occasional discreet splashes of color. Bechtler's costumes are always appropriate.

Perhaps because he is working from an existing text, Icke falters with certain details. The arrival of the priest at the hospital feels contrived, her parents' absence rather too casually explained. Also, her father's insistence that the girl died in a state of mortal sin (thanks to her abortion), without sacramental attention, is not something most modern-day Catholics would espouse. (Indeed, most would be repelled by his insistence that she has been consigned to the fires of hell.) It's an extreme position and it needs more examination than it gets here. But for the most part, The Doctor is an acute examination of a society undergoing a profound and agonizing transformation. "Does it feel like faith is ending?" Ruth asks the priest. "It feels like it's shedding a skin," he says. "Finding new forms. It terrifies me sometimes." It's a feeling we can all share, I think. --David Barbour

(23 June 2023)

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