Dr. Cook’s Garden
written by Ira Levin
directed by Ellen Dempsey
produced by The American Century Theater
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Dr. Cook’s Garden is a wickedly good time. In a quaint little homespun Vermont town, a treasured family doctor reveals just how much he loves his perfect little town and how far he will go to keep it perfect. When the Doc’s former student returns for a visit as a grown up young practitioner and asks too many questions about who has died over the years and why, Doc’s handiwork extends beyond pruning shrubs and selecting choice perennials for his horticultural showcase. The beloved wise elder locks horns with the bright young upstart deliberating timeless questions about the value of life that is piercingly relevant to this day. The American Century Theater picked a winner of a show to open its new season. The issues raised in Dr. Cook’s Garden about who deserves to live and what society values ring like a clarion-call.
Known for mastering the “new” genre of the “thriller,” Ira Levin, struck a chord with Rosemary’s Baby and Stepford Wives, and you can catch glimpses of the latter’s edgy concepts in this captivating glimpse of sweet and adorable “anywhere, U.S.A” with tiny rivulets of blood seeping in the hidden drainage ditches. The opening scene solidly sets the tone of a middle American household: a dear self-sacrificing general practitioner with office in his home, will make a house call at the drop of a hat. His two office staff tend to his needs like he’s a treasured old grandpa, fretting over his eating habits, bringing him goodies, catering to him while whispering worriedly that he’ll work himself to death one of these days. They treat the new young upstart like a budding savior who can take Doc’s place when the inevitable time comes. The stakes are already high even before any questionable mortality figures are unveiled since the staff is desperate to start grooming a replacement so as not to be Doctorless like some other wretched counties nearby –shudder, shudder-likening it to a fate worse than death.
These underlying issues about the paucity of general practitioners as well as the challenges of isolation are effectively woven into the story and highlight an issue that could be torn from the headlines today. Young Dr. Jim Tennyson played beautifully by J.B. Bissex has already started getting rooted and settled in Chicago, with a pretty fiancee, a group practice opportunity, and draft board responsibilities beckoning him back promptly on schedule. On a fluke while obtaining his own medical records for the draft board session, he can’t help but notice some questionable notations and unexpected deaths in some of the records (this is definitely before current strict HIPAA health data privacy rules). Despite his love and veneration for his beloved mentor, surrogate father and friend, his scientific training simply won’t let him ignore some glaring inconsistencies, and almost like he can’t help himself, he finds himself asking the tough questions, and even pressing threateningly for the truth.
Here is where the production hits its stride and comes to life with banners waving high. The acting, writing and directing all connect with unwavering commitment to the thriller-pace of the story, starting with Bissex as the young upstart doctor. He handles all the intricate twists and turns with ease from being the dutiful and likeable home-town favorite son, to being irresistibly drawn towards the puzzling health records, to uncomfortably questioning his father-figure and finally turning into the tough as nails accuser. Bissex handles the shifting roles with ease with a thoughtful interior analysis at each turn, taking us with him on the journey like a seasoned pro. He is neatly matched by David Schmidt as Doc Cook whose sing-song lilting voice and innocently loving expressions turn into tough combat ready assault weapons when his protégé threatens to reveal his methodology in creating the “happiest and healthiest town in America.”
Director Ellen Dempsey keeps the dynamics flowing, helping the tension mount gradually while the action spirals into a whirlwind of accusations, disbelief, and ultimately horror. The world turns topsy turvey when secrets are revealed, philosophical questions about ethics are argued, death threats come and go, all the way to the final scene where the young doctor, now wizened, nearly broken down by the jolting experience has to decide what to do with the rest of his originally planned manicured life. His quiet resolve in that scene, surrounded by the anxiously waiting town folk, is priceless.
Also priceless is Trena Weiss-Null’s expansive set design which comfortably depicts four distinct playing areas along the width of the stage including a side office and backstage examination room with ease. Lighting design by AnnMarie Castrigno and sound designer Christopher Baine also helped set the tone with ominous shadows and eerie disquieting music during the interludes.
The American Century Theater’s selfless mission of producing American theater’s seldom seen masterworks sometimes goes down like well intentioned medicine – you know it’s good for you, and you’re glad it’s there, but you wouldn’t make a meal of it. You don’t even need a spoonful of sugar to make Dr. Cook’s Garden go down. It’s simply a well produced and chillingly fun hell of a tale.
Running Time: Slightly over 2 hours, with two brief intermissions
When: Thru October 4th. : All Wednesdays (PWYC). Thursday – Saturday at 8, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:30.
Where: The Gunston Arts Center, Theater II, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206
Tickets: $28 – $32
Call: 703-998-4555.. or consult the website.