Science and Sensibility

By Renner, Pamela | American Theatre, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Science and Sensibility


Renner, Pamela, American Theatre


Lisa Loomer and Margaret Edson turn a lens on the medical establishment

Medical science to the unwary can seem like a genie, able to grant human beings their most desperate wishes - children to the childless, beauty to the homely, health to the hopelessly ill. Like every genie we invent, however, it can be counted upon to fail us in times of greatest need.

Playwrights Margaret Edson (Wit) and Lisa Loomer (Expecting Isabel and The Waiting Room, among other plays) are far from unwary. Both, in fact, are penetrating witnesses to extreme rites, impassioned observers able to coax astonished laughter from audiences confronted with tragic circumstance. Wit and The Waiting Room are dramas of mortality set in the harsh amphitheatre of the modern research hospital. Both Edson and Loomer sprinkle their dialogue liberally with the polysyllables of medical lingo, and their property lists groan beneath the burden of hospital beds, morphine drips and IV poles. The effect of all this theatrical scaffolding of terminal illness, however, is not a slavish naturalism, nor even a fascination with the mechanical flora and fauna of dying. Instead, the hospital setting serves to underscore the human absurdity at the core of the scientific worldview. Very simply, these are plays about the search for empirical knowledge as it fails - brutally and painfully - to postpone the final chapter of a human life.

This is no country for young women, to paraphrase W. B. Yeats. Nonetheless both playwrights have come ashore here, determined to stake their authenticity upon the factual as weld as the emotional accuracy of the presentation. Loomer's The Waiting Room, which premiered in 1994 at Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum and has since been widely produced, is a strenuously researched fantasia, spanning and uniting three diverse centuries through its chromatic triplet of ailing female protagonists: a 20th-century secretary from New Jersey, a 19th-century Victorian doctor's wife and an 18th-century Chinese noblewoman. All three meet in the oncologist's waiting room, a space outside of time and habit where each character can examine the conditions that led to her fate. Loomer's ironies hinge upon authentic physical horrors: mutilations of female body and spirit such as foot-binding, plastic surgery and bone-laced stays. As the three women develop a friendship, they begin to reclaim their own lives, right at the breaking point.

Wit sticks closer to realism, and closer to home. Edson puts up no shield against a suspension of disbelief. And Kathleen Chalfant, in her bravura performance in the current New York production, commands belief, playing Dr. Vivian Bearing - a formidable scholar of John Donne's poetry who's stricken by ovarian cancer. The performance is a landmine: explosive, unsentimental and wise to the core.

How does one know the self at this terminal moment? Not as a collection of cell pathologies and blood chemistry data, as Bearing's young doctors assume. Bearing cannot be reduced to the suffering animal life shivering beneath the hospital gown. She is more than a body and a past - although even the metaphysical poets can only speculate about the future of a woman who, in the ordinary sense, has no future.

Another possibility is suggested by Wit's E.M. Ashford, a venerable literary critic who instructs a young Bearing about punctuation in the sonnets of Donne: "Nothing but a breath - a comma - separates life from life everlasting. It is very simple really." Edson's drama doesn't venture off into terra incognita; it stays fiercely grounded, strapped to the scrutiny of the clinic. No matter how simple death may be, the act of trying to cheat and stall it through chemotherapy is filled with complexity.

Seven years ago, long before she consciously intended to write the play, Atlanta-based Margaret Edson worked as an inpatient floor captain in the AIDS and cancer wards of the National Institute of Health's research hospital in Washington, D.

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