April 24, 2009

Criteria for Life

godcommittee_forhomepage_vert.jpgThe intended recipient of a heart transplant dies in surgery. You've got 45 minutes to get a new patient ready. Choose one of the following: the lovable, but overweight black man, the elderly lady who has spent a lifetime helping others, the angry poet who's having a spiritual awakening, or the billionaire's son (who just might give you enough money to save thousands more lives).

This isn't a test question. It's every day life for members of the St. Patrick's transplant committee, and you get to listen in at Centre Stage's latest production of Mark St. Germain's “The God Committee. It's a tense ride, and you may not like everything you hear along the way, but since it's a matter of life triumphing over death, you'll be happy you stuck around.

That's one of the difficulties in viewing (and reviewing) such a play. The message is clear. The message is necessary. The message sometimes trumps artistry. Don't blame the actors for that; the script often reads like a cross between a organ donor brochure and reality T.V. It's to the actors' credit--especially Bruce Meahl's wry Dominic and Britney Teie's wonderfully real Dr. Banks--that it comes off as natural as it does.

Dr. Banks is the refreshing newcomer on the committee, so there's plenty of explanation for her (and Father Dunbar's) benefit. This means you won't be baffled by medical jargon. Unfortunately, this also poses a problem for the playwright; in making sure that we ordinary mortals can understand the inner workings of a transplant selection committee, he's created more than a few wooden monologues. In fact, that seems to be his weakest link.

Mark St. Germain writes crackling dialogue—it's terse, and even in the darkest moments, it's funny. But when the characters start monologuing about medical processes (or personal tragedies), the script feels more than a bit clunky. Fortunately, in a little slice of reality, there's not much room for giving speeches, not when you've got less than an hour to decide who lives and who dies.

The criteria for life? Well, it's not very objective. Character, support networks, money, community impact, and of course, the personal histories of those making the decision. With so much mess and so little time, it's no wonder that tensions lead to an all-out fight among the staff. It's a scene worth waiting for—Germain's writing falls into place, and all the actors rise to the occasion. Before it's over, you'll understand Dr. Banks' predicament: she has “an ulcer instead of a personal life.” If you had to watch these human explosions every night, had to make these decisions in which so many people necessarily lose—you'd have an ulcer too.

But underneath all brokering backbiting, everyone's really asking the same question: what is the worth of a human life? Can you really reduce it to a series of statistics? And while you may or may not agree with the less-than-objective process or the decision it produces, the play's underlying message is heartbreakingly clear: there just aren't enough donors for people in need.

Mark St. Germain's “The God Committee.” Directed by Dale Savidge. With Lou Buttino (Dr. Jack Klee), Lorry Houston (Nella Larkin, R.N.), Catalina Keller (Dr. Ann Ross), Bruce Meahl (Dominic Piero), Rod McClendon (Father Charles Dunbar), Britney Teie (Dr. Kiera Banks), and Todd Weir (Dr. Alex Gorman).

Costume Designer, Elyse Middlebrooks; Sound Designer, Christoph Kresse. Presented by Centre Stage, 501 River Street, Greenville, SC (864) 233-6733. Through May 2. Tickets $25, with discounts for seniors and students.

Posted by stephanie at April 24, 2009 11:26 AM | TrackBack