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Secret Order
Repertory Theater of Saint Louis

Also see Sarah's review of Fiddler on the Roof

The opening show of the 2009-2010 Studio Theater season at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis is an up-tempo reading of Bob Clyman's play Secret Order, an old-fashioned tale set in the high-tech world of cancer research. Mr. Clyman's story is both a cautionary fable—with distinct echoes of a tradition dating back to medieval morality plays—and a clinical dissection of the lives of four all-too-human characters.

Young immunologist William Shumway has hit upon a potentially significant technique for treating cancer cells. He is summoned from his lab at the University of Illinois to a high-powered institution in New York, a place where scientists and administrators speak openly of their chances at Nobel prizes. Under the tutelage of Robert Brock, the world-famous director of the institute, Shumway conducts experiments and rushes to prepare his work for presentation to the scientific community. Unfortunately, the published versions of his research omit results that suggest that his discovery is flawed. Despite the earnest help of a sharp and insightful student, Shumway must face the consequences of his actions at the hands of a worldly-wise senior researcher, Saul Roth.

The terms of the ethical dilemma are complicated and fuzzy. Exactly who is responsible for the deception-by-omission is a matter of opinion. Certainly the push for quick results—science against a deadline—is ethically questionable, though it reflects, unfortunately, the way science is done in the real world. Roth's moral stature as a judge is uncertain, though his role reflects a kind of justice. The idea that scientists are morally impeccable searchers for the truth is laid to rest early in the action; in fact, according to Clyman, success in science depends as much on skillful political maneuvering as it does on brilliant theorizing. Only the young and naive think of saving lives and relieving suffering.

William Shumway (the name recalls brilliant heart surgeon Norman Shumway) is almost a caricature of the innocent provincial who gets caught up in a complicated political conflict for which he is woefully unprepared. Actor Todd Lawson finds the scraps of humor in the role, but invests the character with an attractive simplicity; his Shumway is painfully open, and the moment at which he discovers that deception just might be the path to stardom is beautifully rendered. Robert Brock is a type all too familiar to anyone who has been around top-level research; too old to do science any more, he has become a mover and shaker, constantly traveling, constantly meeting, constantly doing deals and promoting his institution and its people. He is humanized by his obvious and genuine affection for Shumway, made fully apparent in an almost comic scene in which he helps the younger man buy a suit of clothes. Richmond Hoxie plays Brock with great energy.

The young student, Alice Curiton, is fiercely idealistic—to the point of informing Brock of her mentor Shumway's problems. Yet she has, from her first lines, a pragmatic attitude about the truth; she lies openly in her efforts to get hired as a summer intern. In light of this pragmatism, her final, disappointing decision does not seem so out of character. Angela Lin gives Alice a physical reading, with adept use of gesture, posture and movement to underline the character's idealistic drive. Saul Roth first appears as an old and insignificant member of the institute's staff, but that appearance, we learn, is deceptive. His pragmatism is profound; his moral imperative is survival, and he turns out to be very good at it, indeed. Actor Stan Lachow certainly looks the part, and gives an understated but persuasive performance.

Secret Order differs from the traditional morality play in this: it attacks the status quo, but has itself no ethical center. Clyman's bottom line is that none of these characters is the kind of person we envision when we think about the kind of science that aspires to discover "truth"—and further, that our very vision of science as a quasi-religious practice is as silly, and as lethal, as William Shumway's simple mistake.

The play will run through November 15 in the Studio Theater at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit the website at www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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