A Plague on the Playhouse

Smallpox, cholera, and polio -- diseases that a century ago killed or disabled hundreds of thousands of people -- have all but been eliminated from the Western world by virtue of vaccinations, antibiotics, and improved sanitation. Such eradication has created an illusory sense of immunity among people in the First World. Historian William H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, recounts this feeling of safety in a 1983 critique of a history of the Black Death published in the New York Review of Books: "One of the things that separate us from our ancestors and make contemporary experience profoundly different from that of other ages," McNeill writes, "is the disappearance of epidemic disease as a serious factor in human life." But a subsequent resurgence of tuberculosis, increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, the emergence of the Ebola virus, and, of course, AIDS have rudely awakened those of us who naively believed we were impervious to catastrophic illnesses.

Playwright Anthony Clarvoe seeks to explore the effects of epidemics on the human spirit in his 1993 drama The Living. On-stage at the Pope Theatre Company in Manalapan, this allegory of our modern response to disease is set in London in 1665 during an outbreak of bubonic plague. King Charles II and his entire court have fled the city, followed by wealthy merchants, church leaders, and even medical personnel, leaving the poor with limited resources. Clarvoe sketches the stories of several individuals who stay behind either because they are penniless, do not have connections to get a pass to leave, or because they feel a sense of obligation to those who are suffering. Their stories intersect through a series of interrelated episodes, stitched together with speeches, sermons, and a eulogy.

At its best, The Living raises challenging questions about personal and social responsibility. At times it proves both clever ("Are you proposing that the government pay for health care?" asks a shocked spokesman for the king) and moving (a doctor who has selflessly been helping others discovers he has the plague). And it introduces a coterie of compelling characters, including Sir John Lawrence (Roger Forbes), a nobleman who finds himself running the city after his colleagues have fled; Sarah Chandler (Brenda Foley), a woman who loses her husband and children to the disease; and John Graunt (Dan Leonard), the narrator-guide to many of the events who studies the ebb and flow of the plague according to the numbers of dead. ("What do you call your trade?" Sir John asks Graunt. "I call it statistics," Graunt replies. "Do you think it will catch on?") Unfortunately such intriguing characters are limited by hastily drawn scenes that leave us wanting more insights, details, and action. And the stupefying speeches linking these scenes bring the underdeveloped story lines to a grinding halt. By relying on pedantic soliloquies to tell us what we should think, Clarvoe avoids dramatizing events that would allow us to arrive at our own conclusions. In the long run, the playwright's leaden style prevents his ambitious attempt at allegory from moving beyond a static period piece.

The Pope Theatre's production goes a long way toward making up for the limitations of Clarvoe's script. Through his often animated direction, Louis Tyrrell once again proves himself a director who so inherently understands the ingredients of good drama that he could elicit a dynamic performance from an actor reading the directions on a bottle of shampoo. And what actors he has assembled here! Forbes delivers an impeccable performance as a man dueling with his sense of right and wrong. As Forbes portrays him, Sir John has such great integrity and sense that you would want him around in a crisis. John Felix brings his sonorous voice and considerable stage presence to the role of Lord Brounker, the aristocrat who remains duty-bound to the king. Foley inspires as Sarah, a steel-spined woman who summons a purpose from within herself to go on living after losing her entire family. Gordon McConnell poignantly grapples with his fears and his commitment to heal as Dr. Edward Harmon. Dan Leonard and Stephen G. Anthony (as Rev. Dr. Thomas Vincent) both turn in strong performances, even though they are saddled with too many of Clarvoe's deadly speeches.

You may find it worthwhile to catch this production of The Living if only to enjoy the consummate cast, but be forewarned: Neither stellar acting nor Tyrrell's creative direction adequately enlivens what is essentially an academic discourse instead of a dramatic event.

Stage Whispers
Two years, three months, and one week ago (who's counting?) I stepped into the role of New Times drama critic, beginning a tradition of arriving at the office to file my review with my five-month-old daughter in tow. Then, she was considerably less demanding than she is now, which is the reason I am concluding my tenure here as a reviewer -- to pursue writing projects with less frequent deadlines so I can hang out more with my child. Before I move on, here are several observations about theater, Miami-style.

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Pamela Gordon