The Man Who
The Man Who is billed as "a theatrical research," but the accent is more on the research than the theatrical. The play, adapted from Oliver Sacks' medical memoir, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, presents seventeen vignettes of neurological illness, but not much else. Patients appear, act oddly, and suddenly the scene changes and the scenario repeats. The Nora Theatre Company's New England premiere of the play, written by Sacks, Peter Brook, and Marie-Helene Estienne, allows audience members an up-close and personal look at neurological disorders in the intimate production directed by Welsey Savick that closed this week.
In his book, Sacks offers commentary on the patients, presenting them as tragicomic metaphors for life, "there but for the grace of God" writ large. The play, however, removes Sacks as a character, which significantly changes the experience. Without Sacks to contextualize what we see, we become the researchers, attempting to interpret the bizarre behaviors of the brain damaged. However, without Sacks' context, the patients are not longer at all comedic. When real people stand before you and can't perform even the simplest tasks, their astonishment and agony apparent, you can only see tragedy.
That this tragedy is so believable is a testament to the strong cast assembled for this production. Four men, wearing identical drab outfits (designed by Jacqueline Dalley), take turns swapping in and out of the lab coat, all playing both doctors and patients over the course of the evening. The doctors blend together, but the patients stand out, from Steven Barkhimer's turn as a man with Tourette Syndrome to Jim Spencer's quiet but powerful man haunted by a Persian melody. Robert Bonotto's portrayal of a man who yearns to communicate despite a loss of vocal ability is particularly masterful.
In his program notes, Savick calls the play "unfathomable," and his direction hammers this home. The characters may feel authentic, but the play feels far from theatrical. The evening adds up to little more than a collection of glimpses at people behaving curiously.
The Nora Theatre Company's production of The Man Who closes on Sunday, May 7, at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. Next up for The Nora: Vanessa David's Early Dismissal as part of the 8th Annual Boston Theatre Marathon. For more information about The Nora Theatre Company, please visit www.thenora.org.