There are those who look at a night out at the theater to be an escape from the daily grind, the pressures from work, and the stress that often accompanies political discourse. Then again, theater often upends this expectation and arrests our attention by offering, within the confines of a couple hours, a glimpse into different perspectives from past eras. When director Thom Hofrichter selected The Doctor’s Dilemma for this season for First Presbyterian Theater, he did so by purposely connecting a modern-day moral debate with the thoughts of one of history’s finest satirists, George Bernard Shaw. Though it was originally published over a century ago in England, Shaw’s play posits questions that force the audience to examine their moral compass and challenges its notions of empathy and compassion.
Hofrichter, who is in his 22nd year at FPT as Managing Artistic Director, elected for this performance to be a staged reading, which means that the actors carry scripts with them on stage. This technique, he notes, allows for Shaw’s dense language and rhetoric to become the focal point. The experienced cast at FPT chosen for this “Shaw Out Loud” performance succeeds in an innovative and enjoyable manner.
Over the course of five acts, five physicians are faced with the inability to cure all who are sick and must determine the fate of two local individuals. Boomeranging throughout the play are the contrasting thoughts and perspectives, not of the actors or even the characters, but rather of an entire society, which is even more reason for a contemporary audience to examine Shaw’s suddenly relevant work.
With a dialogue-driven play set up in this manner, the performers become vessels of philosophical debate. Theatergoers may notice how they will find themselves noticing less and less how each character is holding the very words he or she has been tapped to recite. This cast gracefully directs attention to the attitudes and rhetoric embedded within Shaw’s words. By the final act, I would be surprised to learn that any viewer was acknowledging the scripts in performer’s hands. With drama, we are conditioned to identify a protagonist and track his or her progress toward becoming a more morally sound individual. Shaw’s play, however, puts this expectation on its proverbial ear and forces the audience to internalize their own beliefs and actions. This is a testament to the combined efforts of a cast and director who share the notion that the attention should be on the essence of the play’s thematic focus and not the fate of a single character.
The chief man of medicine from the group is Dr. Ridgeon, played by Larry Bower. Bower excels at capturing Ridgeon’s bedside manner, especially in the presence of the sick and their loved ones. Kate Black as Dr. Walpole offers many humorous jabs that lighten the weighty plot. Rounding out the quintet of doctors are convincingly aloof performances by Orion Toepler, Brian Ernsberger, and Tom Corron. Together these five actors succeed in exposing the audience to the disparaging egos of those whose careers hold human lives in the balance.
I particularly enjoyed Billy Hofman as Louis Dubedat in his arguably antagonistic role because he successfully presents valid arguments that eat away at the stuffy doctors and, perhaps, the preconceived notions of the audience. Finally, Robyn Pasko, in her return after an outstanding performance in FPT’s My Dead Clown earlier this season, submits a stirring monologue toward the plays conclusion that, at least for this reviewer, instigated goosebumps.
While the first- and second acts may appear to spend a little too much time establishing the distinctions among the five doctors, the three remaining acts deliver a powerful payoff. Among the most impressive features of this cast’s performance is how each one clearly establishes an identifiable trajectory of his or her character’s own morality.
Rae Surface’s set design is appropriately bare with its simple arrangement of metallic props serving as a subtle reminder of the sterile, callous environment often found in a doctor’s office or surgeon’s arena. This purposeful void further reinforces the attention that Shaw’s dialogue demands.
The mastery of this early 20th century play perhaps lies in its unlikely relevance to a 21st century audience. Shaw’s cutting language has evolved into the basis for a present-day ethical debate. The performers convincingly shuttle the audience back to 1906 and leave them impassioned about the reality and tragedy of modern morality.