by Oliver Sacks, Peter Brook & Marie-Helene Estienne
Directed by Wesley Savick
Nora Theatre Co. at Boston Playwrights' Theatre
929 Comm. Ave Allston MA
Through May

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Those familiar with Oliver Sacks' anecdotal study of neurological anomalies, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" will find some of the more striking references from that work embedded in this collage of interactions between doctors and patients. Those familiar with the recent work of Peter Brook will recognize the transformations the four actors undergo in this short effort. In the course of 75 minutes, each performer plays doctors confronting men suffering from some aberration of perception, as well as the patients themselves. These unique symptoms suggest the malleability of reality, at least for the individual. There are of course no conclusions or judgements, and no patients with secondary clinical diagnoses. "The Man Who," labeled as "a theatrical research," is basically factual.

Under the direction of Wesley Savick, the cast consists of IRNE winner Steven Barkhimer, Robert Bonotto, Owen Doyle, and Jim Spencer. Barkhimer was last seen for the Nora in "Van Gogh in Japan", as was Robert Bonotto. Both were seen this fall at the Lyric in Steve Martin's version of "The Underpants." Owen Doyle appeared recently in "A Prayer for Owen Meany" at Stoneham. Jim Spencer was in Nora's "Antigone: last season and was nominated for an IRNE for his role in ACT's "City Preacher" by Ed Bullins. Director Savick, on the faculty at Suffolk University, recently directed "Theatre District" for Speakeasy, and Zayd Dorhn's IRNE winning "Permanent Whole Life'" at Boston Playwrights'. The show has the polish one would expect from such an ensemble. The ritual of actors becoming doctors or patients by changing into or out of white coats provides an orderly background to the mental chaos the latter experience.

In a piece of nonlinear theatre like this, the arc of the action comes from connections made between disperate elements. As the ensemble moves from the calming attitude of the neurologists to the varying degrees of agitation shown by their patients, the depth of the failure of perception becomes painfully clear. The common dilemma shared by both classes is heightened as doctor becomes patient and vice versa. There are a few bravura moments, carried off by Barkhimer and Doyle, while Bonotto and Spencer have quieter epiphanies. The simple truth of the show however, is that there is no cure for these problems, a very sobering thought. Like the rest of life, they can only be dealt with.

Each actor wears identical grey shirts and pants provided by costumer Jacqueline Dalley. Set and lighting were designed by IRNE awardee, John R. Malinowski, who's created a square white platform in the center of the frieze stage, overhung with a suspended ceiling. The lighting is mostly institutional, with appropriate variations, especially on the two side stages used for non-interview scenes. The actors never leave the stage, waiting. in character, on benches upstage right and left when they're not in a scene. All the props, including video equipment, are kept on shelves along the backstage wall. A clear plex table and two shiny metal office chairs complete the scene. The general effect is artificial reality, reflecting the formal protocols of scientific investigation.

Brook has taken on madness before, beginning with "Marat/Sade", and has most recently become deeply involved with Eastern mysticism. Here. in the "theatrical research," he uses a lifetime of experimental technique to take Sacks' case studies from the page to the stage. The current production meets this theatrical challenge. Nora has had a season of offbeat efforts this year which haven't drawn as well as might be hoped. "The Man Who" may find a larger audience among mental health professionals locally, but should reach farther to those interested in the range of serious, nonexploitive theatre.

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