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The God Committee
-- Review of The God Committee during its 2004 world premiere at Barrington Stage by Elyse Sommer
In December 1967 a South African surgeon named Christian Barnard made medical history by transplanting the heart of a road accident victim into a 59-year old man named Louis Washkansky. Since that headline-making miracle, heart and other organ transplants have become commonplace. However, progress is inevitably followed by problems and the big problem with the miracle of organ transplants is that there are not enough organ donors to match patients in need of good hearts, kidneys, livers, etc. This "competition" for available organs forces health care professionals in many hospitals to literally play God. And it is this situation that propelled playwright Mark St. Germain to write his aptly named play, The God Committee currently being given its world premiere at Barrington Stage's Main Stage.
St. Germain has applied his usual skill for creating tension and relieving it with considerable humor and spark to this highly charged drama. The setting is St. Patrick's Hospital. The time is St. Patrick's day which, besides establishing the possibility of traffic jams to disrupt the transport of the heart also allows sound designer Randy Hansen to provide some cheery Irish music to introduce each act.
Father Charles Dunbar (Gerritt Graham), St. Patrick's priest-lawyer who is part of committe charged with selecting the patient to receive a newly available heart, makes his entrance jokingly announcing "we're running a holiday special on indulgences today." Except for a chalkboard with the names of the patients whose lives depend on this commitee meeting's decision this could be any corporate meeting room. By the time all seven committee members are seated we have caught the gist of the personal issues each brings to the table.
Dr. Jack Klee (David Rasche), the chief-medical honcho, is suffering from an unnamed but serious illness; Dr. Alex Gorman (Armand Schultz), who will be doing the transplant, displays the impatient and God-like manner typical of many surgeons; Dr. Keira Bank (Kelly Hutchinson), the youngest and newest committee member, still has to learn to cope with the emotional dynamite of organ transplanting; Dr. Ann Ross ((Amy Van Nostrand), a psychiatrist, feels she ought to leave the committee since she is still trying to deal with the recent loss of her teen-aged daughter; Ron Orbach (Dominick Piero), a wheelchair bound social worker, obviously hides his intense loneliness behind the one-liners he tosses out at every opportunity; the most sympathetic character, Hispanic Nurse Nell Redwood (Michele Shay), is something of a centering presence who has been on the committee since the beginning and, as she puts it, "before that I rolled bandages for Clara Barton."
The actors admirably play their parts to fit the personalities and private crises assigned to them. David Rasche is especially strong as the doctor who suddenly finds himself to be someone who might end on some committee's chalkboard of patients needing special treatment. Michelle Shay potently conveys the warmth that typifies the nursing profession. However, this is essentially an issue driven rather than a character driven play. Important and rich in dramatic potential as this problematic miracle of transplantation medicine is, plays in which the characters are developed to fit the issues often fail to engage you as emotionally as they should. This is unfortunately true of this play. Some of the personal business is just too neatly woven into the situation at hand. Momentary departures from established persona -- as is the case with the God-like surgeon's flash of human frailty -- are too predictable.
As for the patients whose fate will be decided before the play's end, they represent a fair sampling of people you might find on such a list of "contestants" for an available heart. Mr. St. Germain has added a thought-provoking ethical/ political dilemma by way of the wealthy father of one young man who dangles the promise of a multi-million dollar donation to the hospital's transplant program. For Dr. Klee that potential donation is a chance to realize the yearning "to leave something behind -- something that matters." It's unlikely that even this clever plot twist and the desperate calls from the fellow transporting the heart will prevent you from guessing how it will all end.
Under David Saint's direction, the actors move around the meeting room and exit and re-enter without any awkwardness. While Eric Renschler's set fills the large stage quite nicely, I do think that this play would have worked better had it, like St. Germain's Ears on a Beatle, been staged in the smaller venue where the audience could get more of a sense of being in the room with these seven men and women. A friend who saw the play the day before I did and moved from the middle of the orchestra (where the critics were also seated on press night) to an empty seat in the third row, told me she felt more involved sitting closer to the stage. In the smaller space this greater sense of involvement would have been possible for the entire audience. On the other hand the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, currently in that space, would probably have managed to do just as well in the bigger theater with no loss of intimacy.
In the final analysis, Barrington Stage artistic director Juliane Boyd deserves credit for taking a chance on untried work and mounting dramas as well as the musicals that are o dear to her heart as well as being most popular with her audiences. People may liken the theater to an invalid, but as long as we have derring-do enterprises like Barrington Stage, the invalid's heartbeat is strong and healthy -- no transplant needed!
The Internet Theatre Bookshop "Virtually Every Play in the World" --even out of print plays
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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