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New play explores MCS
Wednesday 7 October 2009
‘Sick’ will leave you reeling
Thursday, September 3, 2009
By Bob Goepfert
"Sick" is the most provocative play offered this summer season. It is funny in an absurdist way, yet it uses exaggeration to make some thoughtful points about the world in which we live.
The work which continues through Sunday at the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s small Unicorn Theater is rich with potential, however it falls short of its ambitious goals and is more tantalizing than it is satisfying. It proves it takes more than a great idea to make a great play.
"Sick" is a comedy about a family trapped by their choices. They live in a rent controlled apartment in New York City which as they say makes them "Prisoners in the brownstone of our own good fortune."
They are also trapped by misfortune. Their 17-year-old son Davey is a victim of MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity). It is an affliction that makes him allergic to almost everything. The way the family protects him is to live an isolated existence in a hermetically sealed, immaculate house.
Just as the rent-controlled apartment makes them prisoners of real estate, their paranoid fear of the outside work makes them prisoners of fear.
Playwright Zayd Dohrn is able to generate laughs by exaggerating the lengths people will go to protect a loved one. It also examines the toll obsessive protection can take on those being protected. We wonder: Is the cure is worse than the disease as each member of the family becomes a captive to the fear of the unknown?
The mother (Lisa Emery) uses her guilt-inducing behavior to dominate the father (Michel Gill). Davey (Ryan Spahn) reactions to sensitive stimuli appear almost staged, suggesting his response to his illness is learned behavior designed to control his family. The 19-year-old sister Sarah (Rebecca Brooksher) assumes the role of the good child by behaving in an obedient non-challenging manner.
This fragile balance is threatened when the father, a brilliant poetry teacher at a local college, brings Jim, his star graduate student, into the home. Jim encourages Sarah to explore the world outside the house and his conversations with Davey suggests the ill youth is enjoying the attention his poor health provides.
Jim has been brought into in the house to bear witness to the father’s rebellious experiment intended to test the legitimacy of the family dynamic. The result is both funny and revealing.
Because of all the sub-text, it is likely that "Sick" is a post 9/11 allegory about the effect fear and paranoia can have on a entire society. The play’s premise is that when irrational behavior is accepted as the norm, intelligent thought is negated. The father abdicates his intellectual superiority and succumbs to consensus reality. Even the brilliant outsider, Jim, is impotent in a world that reacts more powerfully to what might be rather than to what is.
"Sick" is directed by David Auburn who wrote "Proof" and it’s easy to assume why he was attracted to the material. In "Sick" as in "Proof," the true victim of the play is a woman who’s genius is threatened by a dysfunctional family.
The comparison to "Proof" is not the only derivative element in "Sick." The scene between Jim and Sarah appears a rewrite of the "Gentleman Caller" scene from "The Glass Menagerie." (Made even more vivid having seen Keller play the moment at the Unicorn a couple of seasons ago.) Throughout the play there are echoes of Albee, Pinter, Joe Ortonand and others — and they all get in the way of Dohrn’s own voice.
Dohrn is a playwright with many gifts but to get to the next level he needs to find a voice that matches his ideas.
"Sick" at Unicorn Theatre of Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass.
The article originally appeared here.
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