WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? - At the Folger through November 19.
There are two strong answers to the question of "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" in Brian Clark's play at the Folger Theatre Group.
Ordinarily, one wood expect two sides to be a minimum in any philosophical play. But the question is here is life or death, in a society and situation normally committed to value life above all. And we have, on another stage, "Semmelweiss," a play also debating issues of life and death in a hospital setting, in which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Howard Sackler has weighted an entire presentation in favor of the intuitive individual and against the conventional regulations of the medical establishment.
The British play concerns a sculptor and art teacher who has been paralyzed from the neck down by an automobile accident, and who has decided that he wants to die. The doctor who saved his life is committed to keeping him alive. Because of the sculptor's inability to move, he can commit suicide only if he has the hospital's compliance in stopping his treatment, and the question becomes the moral and legal one of whether he should be allowed this decision.
It's important to state what this play is not about. It's not about euthanasia or "mercy killing," or when true death occurs or ending physical suffering. Ken Harrison, the sculptor, has full and lively brain function and is in no pain. Nor is it about needing to be fit to survive. Harrison continually makes the point that he admires and respects disabled people who lead useful and creative lives - but that, perhaps because of his art, he reserves the right to decide not to make that effort. Whose life is it, anyway?
The best argument against Harrison's wish in the marvelous character itself, established through Clark's writing and John Neville Andrew's acting. The sculptor is so witty, resourceful and insightful that anyone would try to foul up his suicidal plans simply for the pleasure of having him around. And yet, philosophically, those who admire him most - his lawyer, one of the doctors - come to respect his need to be in control of his own life, a right that dramatically disappears under the medical care that he must have as long as he remains alive.
The case of those who do not understand is also made well. Aside from the psychiatrist and social worker who automatically feel that life is the only choice, there is a dry but effective portrait in the doctor, played by Ralph Cosham, and the sardonic chief nurse, played by Mary Hara, whose lives and training have put them on the side of life.
Harrison's wit, inventively conveyed by Neville-Andrews' head movements and facial hijinks, is in marked contrast with the ponderous and hysterical tone of "Semmelweiss." Where "Semmelweiss" establishes its seriousness with corpses, cries of agony and having the actors move the heavy sets about like Sisyphus, "Whose Life," with its realistic mixture of tone and character, the good motivations of its minor characters and a hospital atmosphere that tries to be cheerful, makes its dilemma seem all the more serious. The patient rails against their "professionalism," calling the staff an "optimism industry," but their humanity, with the slow thaws Judity Ivey and Marion Lines do particularly well, is there.
Louis Scheeder's bustling direction - the staff is always going about with the well-timed purposefulness of medical types on a soap opera - and Hugh Lester's clever sets, in which multiple-set scene changes are made through the use of hospital curtains, creats a worksday world that comments continually on Harrison's inability to be a working part.
All the screaming in the world would not make the point of Harrison's suffering as does having him lie, inert, in the hospital bed before the show and during intermissions. We go out for intermission drinks, while he lies there, just as the people harrison engages in flirtations and conversations are always leaving his room to conduct their lives and romances while he must remain silently in place until another person cares to take time from such a busy life for him.