All of these medical-themed shows owe tribute to Sidney Kingsley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Men In White, originally produced by the Group Theatre back in 1933. Though quite successful at the time (while still in its Broadway run, it was made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Myrna Loy),Men In White has rarely been produced since.
Now it is back, on view at ATA’s Sargent Theater in a solid production by the always-exciting Seeing Place Theater company.
Seeing Place is in its fifth season of visceral and imaginative productions under the leadership of its managing director Erin Cronican and its artistic director Brandon Walker. Walker, a nominee for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for his portrayal of the title character in John Patrick Shanley’s Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, stars as Dr. George Ferguson, a hotshot young doctor at a New York hospital. George is a young man on the rise, aided in no small way by his association with the socialite Laura Hudson (Ms. Cronican) and her wealthy and influential businessman father (the excellent Stewart Steinberg).
Early on, George intervenes in the treatment of a young girl under the care of a more experienced doctor, and saves her life. He is also the protégé of the dedicated and highly respected surgeon Dr. Leo Hochberg (Mark Gorham) and plans to take a year’s leave to study in Vienna with yet another world-class physician. He is popular among the younger doctors, is happily engaged to be married to Laura, and is being groomed for a top position at the hospital by his prospective father-in-law.
All is well with the world, until George is faced with an array of problems in which he learns that life-and-death decisions do not always turn out to be triumphs of medicine over disease. Indeed, one of the strengths of the play is its disclosure of decidedly ineffective or questionable medical practices, and a plea for the furtherance of medical research. We watch, for example, as George comes up with the only treatment he can think of for a woman who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis: take her to a dryer climate for a rest cure. (In the scene, it is clear that her chances for recovery are quite slim). There are also several references to the casual dispensing of narcotics as a routine form of pain relief, another of the playwright’s issues that has been expanded on in such modern TV fare as Nurse Jackie and House.
But the major shocker of the play concerns the death of a nurse with whom George has had a brief sexual relationship. Barbara, the nurse (well-played by Martine Moore), has had a long-standing crush on George, and arranges to spend a night with him in his room. George, recovering from a quarrel with Laura, turns to her for solace. Unbeknownst to George, their encounter has left Barbara pregnant, and the scene surrounding her death on the operating table following a septic back alley abortion undoubtedly played a major role in earning the play that Pulitzer Prize.
Certainly, this does sounds very cliché-ridden, like the stuff of one of those TV shows I mentioned, but it is important to recognize that Men In White was the “mother ship” for all those that followed. The interactions among the doctors, the arguments over various forms of treatment, the role of money in operating a major hospital (this was during the Great Depression, remember), and the sacrifices that physicians’ families were expected to make all were fresh fodder for Sidney Kingsley to examine.
The Seeing Place has put together a fine cast, and a rather large one at that (17), especially for a company that is called upon to pull the rabbit out of the hat on a shoestring budget. The roles are played by a mix of Equity and non-Equity actors, with many of them turning in top-notch performances.
The company’s two stalwarts, Ms. Cronican (who directs the production as well) and Mr. Walker do excellent jobs of bringing their characters to life and making them psychologically credible. The role of Laura, for example, looks on paper to embrace the typical image of the pushy and demanding socialite, full of ambition for her fiancé. But Ms. Cronican makes it clear that Laura really does love George and wants nothing more than for him to settle into a relatively normal lifestyle with normal working hours instead of embracing the life of a 24/7 doctor carrying the world’s burdens on his shoulders.
Mr. Walker brings out shades of character in George, as well, and the golden boy that is suggested in the writing seems more of a man uncertain of what it is he actually wants out of life. He is the son of a dedicated physician, whose motto was “above all is humanity.” Yet George is not without ambition himself, and, certainly, his is culpable in Barbara’s death, even if the play pretty much lets him off the hook. Mr. Walker goes through the play with a certain deer-in-the-headlights look that makes us wonder how he will turn out, especially since the playwright offers up several older burned-out doctors as potential models of where George might end up in time.
Men In White cannot avoid a bit of the air of musty melodrama, especially since we have been exposed to so many variations on its themes over the years since its original appearance, but it not hard to understand why the issues it raised drew the attention of the Pulitzer Prize voters. The Seeing Place is to be commended for the fine job it has done in bringing it back to the New York stage.
Men In White