By Joe Penhall
Directed by Jeremy Skinner
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
You know that something is wrong the moment the lights come up. A large, aggressive man is standing on a chair in a semi-crouch, loose-limbed and swaying. Another man, wearing a lab coat, is trying to talk to him. The swaying man, spouting gibberish and occasionally giving out an odd, flat, mirthless bark of a laugh, suddenly jumps down and lifts the white-coat up in an embrace which is more predatory than affectionate. He whirls the other man around, twice, and sets him down. The big man (Cedric Mays) is named Christopher. He is a mental patient, and tomorrow he will be released from the London hospital to which he has been committed.
But how can this be? Surely Christopher, so delusional that he is convinced that the skinheads next door are flesh-eating zombies and that the oranges in the fruit bowl are actually blue, cannot be released into the wide world. And – here is the kicker – Christopher believes himself to be the unacknowledged son of the ferocious Ugandan horrorcrat, Idi Amin Dada, and longs for the day when this fierce former dictator will liquidate, and liquefy, his enemies. Any physician who would certify such a person as safe for release would himself be a candidate for psychiatric examination, you think.
But wait until you find out who wants him out on the streets. The head of the hospital wants him released. The legal system wants him released.
We want him released.
To best understand Blue/Orange, imagine it transposed upon a much more famous play, written 44 years ago – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In that play, taken from Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel, the carnivorous Nurse Ratched takes the simple, honest, reasonable responses of the patients in her charge and subjects them to such a dishonest psychological analysis that she is able to convince the spineless Chief of Psychiatry, and even the patients themselves, that they need to remain captives of the awful institution she runs.
Kesey’s story was not science fiction. It was the custom of psychiatric medicine at that time to treat fundamentally healthy but socially disfavored behaviors as a form of mental illness. Notoriously, homosexuality was considered to be mental illness. In the Soviet Union, things were even worse: dissent against scientific socialism was a category of psychosis, and dissenters were treated with powerful psychotropic drugs which turned them into vacant droolers.
Those were the bad old days. Now there is no Soviet Union, and we recognize homosexuality as simply a proclivity, not different than heterosexuality. A person is presumed to be sane, and there is a limit to how long we can treat him without his consent without demonstrable evidence of mental illness.
One thing hasn’t changed, though: the ability of the mental health system to manipulate data in order to serve its own purposes, rather than the patient’s.
“We don’t have the beds” to provide long-term care for Christopher, the hospital head, Dr. Robert Smith (Michael Tolaydo) points out to young Dr. Bruce Flaherty (Aubrey Deeker). Flaherty has been treating Christopher during the patient’s enforced 28-day stay in the hospital, and is alarmed at the prospect of releasing him into the public. But Smith, who in addition to saving the hospital a few bucks wants to test his theory that schizophrenia can be treated by talk therapy done on an outpatient basis, provides a blizzard of rationales for giving Christopher the boot. Perhaps Christopher’s behavior – which is never specified, but which apparently involved doing something to an orange while drunk – is simply a rational reaction to an insane world, Smith postulates, relying on the widely discredited theories of R.D. Laing. (The physicians’ first names may be a backhanded reference to Scottish royalty, in ironic tribute to Laing.)
More dangerously, Smith suggests that Christopher, a black man, is simply obeying a cultural imperative, and Flaherty’s insistence that his behavior is pathological is ethnocentric. Race is the third rail of psychiatry, as it is of law, politics, and most other things, and the fact that Smith insists that Christopher is “African-Caribbean” when he spent his whole life in Sheffield is beyond the point. It is sufficient that this powerful medical bureaucrat has presented the possibility of this accusation to Flaherty to put the young doctor’s career in immediate jeopardy.
Playwright Penhall has identified the problem with great insight and specificity. His dialogue is witty and authentic. It also goes on too long, as though Penhall couldn’t quite believe that his audience would get the point. Nor is the resolution entirely cathartic.
These problems are not the fault of Theater Alliance, which renders every conceivable drop of juice out of this production. Mays is particularly powerful as the twitchy, suffering patient, scary and angry and terrified. He is the very picture of a man whose senses have betrayed him, and who is, as a result, preternaturally alert and intense all the time. On the heels of his successful performance as Nat Turner’s ancient fellow in Insurrection: Holding History, Mays is coming into his own as one of the area’s most important young actors.
Director Jeremy Skidmore has also collaborated in fine performances by Deeker and Tolaydo, who in this play show unerring instincts for good dramatic choices. Deeker did some difficult transitions gracefully, and Tolaydo sufficiently stuffed his fierce and ruthless character – a medical Idi Amin, perhaps – with charm and good humor, thus adding to his dangerousness. We should also make special note of the work done by dialect coach Jennifer Mendenhall, whose skill in this field apparently approaches her skills as an actor, and by lighting designer Andrew Cissna (look for the shadow of the fan at the beginning of the second Act.)
Blue/Orange continues at the H Street Theater (1365 H Street NE) through June 10. Dates are: Saturday, May 19, Sunday, May 20, Tuesday, May 22, Wednesday, May 23, Saturday, May 26, Monday, May 28, Thursday, May 31 through Saturday, June 2, and Wednesday, June 6 through Saturday, June 9, all at 8 p.m. In addition, there will be a 2.00 matinee on every Sunday through June 10, and on Saturday, June 2. Tickets are $26 and may be had at 1.866.811.4111 or ordered online through their website.
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Blue/Orange marks Theater Alliance’s final production under the artistic direction of Jeremy Skidmore. It would be unjust to let this opportunity pass without acknowledging the tremendous sense of adventure Theater Alliance has exhibited during Skidmore’s tenure. They have produced absolutely wonderful shows like [Sic], Mary’s Wedding, In On It, Insurrection: Holding History, You Are Here, and, towering above them all (in my view) the astonishing Headsman’s Holiday, which may be the best thing Aaron Posner has ever done here. Many of these shows played to small houses, but Skidmore did the thing we all claim to want from theater: he put on wonderful stuff, and let the audience take care of itself. Skidmore’s moving on: we’re on our own now.