Capital Fringe kicked off this week with Recovery, a powerful though, at-times, draining exploration through the prolonged emotional quagmire of long term healthcare.
Recovery juxtaposes the ongoing romance of two leukemia patients, Michael (an adorably-dorky Grant Cloyd) and Kathleen (a strong co-lead played by Rachel Manteuffel) with the interwoven narratives of both doctors and patients — all connected, in some way or another, through the cancer that controls their lives.
It’s an ambitious subject to tackle, one that at times seemed to press the audience’s willingness to explore. Some of the most emotionally challenging moments came through the mini-narratives sprinkled throughout, many of which concluded with characters bluntly describing their own passing.
But the tactic offered an organized frame for the ongoing melodrama between Michael and Kathleen, feeling at times like an interwoven fabric of memory that held the two together as they spun through their disease and their treatment. The director, Michael R. Burgtorf, made creative use of scrim and lighting to enhance the ghost-like quality of the play’s secondary stories, which had tremendous artistic payoff in isolating the face from medicine.
On more than one occasion we felt alone with illness, listening to a doctor’s silhouette or a nurse’s outline attempt to turn cold science into relief.
by Mark Jason Williams
at Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
The play dances across a tricky line, threatening constantly to thrust the audience into a confrontation with disease that goes beyond the comfort zone (a threat fully realized during a particularly challenging story about a child with leukemia). But then Michael and Kathleen reappear, offering us the chance to identify with the personal drama we’re used to as well as some much-needed nervous laughter.
Michael’s pinning allows us to see two people falling in love, forgetting for brief moments that they’re still patients. Theirs is an ongoing search for normalcy in tragedy, control within the uncontrollable, and a little bit of love in a world that’s shown them little. Michael is on his second relapse at the start of the play, and Kathleen on her third — tough realities that highlight the seeming endlessness of long-term disease.
And it’s here that the play is at its best, offering a glimpse at how to cope with years of hospital food (one character describes the pizza as “tasting like a tree”), doctor visits, nurses, equipment beeping, and a truly endless array of tests. But they navigate, somehow, exchanging summer camp stories, staring contests, and life savers to punctuate the time in an endless Brechtian cycle of waiting rooms and relapses.
Recovery isn’t easy, but it defies expectations both in medical accuracy and in making a difficult subject (mostly) manageable. The structure is smart, and highlights a number of well-appreciated guest talents including a warm and solid performance by Marcus Salley as Dr. Bestar. But certain story lines remain underdeveloped at the end, and some deeper philosophical conversations seem both unnecessary and undeserved. It is a challenging project, but went far in negotiating an extraordinarily difficult topic.