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Morality’s the Thing: Well-played ethical wrangling in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within
Unless you are particularly fascinated by the man’s work, most people never get around to the more obscure plays of George Bernard Shaw. After “Pygmalion,” “Major Barbara,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and perhaps “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the other plays he wrote – and there were more than 50 – are rarely seen, at least in one piece. Indeed, I have heard many of his later works codified as “costumed panel discussions.” It is hard to make such ideological commentaries theatrical. But it isn’t impossible.
Which brings me to A Noise Within’s new production of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” The play, to which Shaw wrote (as he sometimes did) a philosophical introduction longer than the play itself, manages to bring together his general distrust for the medical profession, his fascination with the limitations of the morality of his day, and his personal, unique logic. It is left to director Damaso Rodriguez to make the thing come to life – to have us care in a more than intellectual way about characters who exist primarily to challenge the intellect. That this is managed, more often than not, is due to Rodriguez’s own vision and a precise and polished ensemble cast.
Sir Colenso Rodgeon has, it appears, come up with a treatment for tuberculosis. Still in the experimental stages, the list of his patients must be limited by his funding and the size of his staff. That list is full when the beautiful wife of an artist arrives to beg her husband be included in his study because of his larger value to society. Then, just as this is to move forward, information about an indigent but completely selfless fellow physician’s equally profound illness, and about the questionable morality of the artist, bring him up short. How should this possible life or death decision be made?
Geoff Elliott plays Rodgeon as a gentle man nonetheless supremely confident in his own abilities and, despite his protestations, made comfortable by his ability to play god. His somewhat childish underpinnings are only revealed in his choice of housekeepers – a nurturing, wise old woman played with delightful individuality by Deborah Strang.
Among the other medical men who gather around him, Apollo Dukakis stumbles a bit, but harrumphs nicely as a retired old-time medical man. Robertson Dean and Freddy Douglas make distinctly individual characters out of the two doctors obsessed with their differing, single diagnoses for all ailments. David LM McIntyre’s brief appearance as their destitute yet honorable, ill colleague manages to be adamantly noble and mildly pitiful at once.
Yet, when it comes to creating characters worth remembering, it is Jason Dechert’s charmingly amoral artist whose confident calm and disarmingly illogical logic power the play’s best moments. Combined with Jules Willcox as the archetypical Shavian heroine – confident in her power of persuasion and far more observant than given credit for – they pin this whole piece together. Rafael Goldstein and Kelly Ehlert round out the cast in minor but important roles.
Nods also to Susah Gratch, whose ability to create a semblance of Victorian solidity from airy bits of set both grounds and lightens the piece. Leah Piehl’s costumes hint at the transitional nature of the time (the play was written in 1911), though some of Willcox’s finery seems to float a bit much between periods.
Still, it must be said that the root of the play, and the main argument one will walk away with, is an intricate examination of ethics. Ethics in the hands of Shaw involves a lot of talk. The play runs, with intermission, about 2 3/4 hours – typical for Shaw, but a bit much for some modern theatergoers.
So, go with your thinking cap on, and the patience to hear the man out. You know he’s saying something he sees as important when one of his characters (in this case, the artist) quotes Shaw himself, by name, and when one of the silliest characters strings together random phrases from Shakespeare (the playwright Shaw saw as his chief rival). What he has to say will leave most modern folk squirming a bit, which is just what he was after.
What: “The Doctor’s Dilemma” When: in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” on selected dates through November 25, 8 p.m Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org