It is easier to admire the Eisenhower's "Semmelweiss" than to become involved in it. And playwright Howard Sackler's intention is to involve us, above all, emotionally.
That this did not happen on the Kennedy Center's opening night is recognized by both Sackler and producer Robert Whitehead. This is what tryouts of new production are all about - to find from the doing what works, what doesn't and why. Sackler's, Whitehead's and director Edwin Sherin's problem is to pull the audience more quickly into the drama during these three remaining weeks before the play's New York bow.
When Sackler's first stage work since "The Great White Hope" had its first production last season at Buffalo's small Studio Arena Theater, it attracted several New York critics, whose enthusiasm suggested that here was a serious contender for a Pulitzer prize. With a few exceptions, it is doubtful that many of the Eisenhower first nighters share that thought. Still, clearly, there is a play here.
Sackler set himself major dramatic hurdles.
Through hindsight we know why, up to the mid 19th century, so many women were dying in childbirth in European hospitals. The sight of doctors washing their hands in movies and TV must have consumed months of all our lives. We know that doctors have to wash their hands and we know why.
Sackler shows us his Semmelweiss noting that doctors would go from morgue and cadavers directly to patients. Semmelweiss realizes that doctors, himself included, have been killing women and babies.
It is then, not the dawning of a truth which interests the playwright, but how Semmelweiss will react to his observations and to the disbelievers his theory will attract.
This raises another hurdle, for Semmelweiss appears, early on, to be an iracible, impatient, difficult man.
Sackler has compressed years of this man's real life under dramatic license, eliding a career physicians know well. His aim is to create a tragic figure. But one too soon and easily loses patience with the man for whom we should have empathy.
Why doesn't he present irrefutable, definable reasons to convince his disbelieving - or disinterested - colleagues? Why is his argument so chaotic? Why must almost all the Semmelweiss associates be presented as stuffed shirts of the Establishment? Why is Prussian authoritarianism their common characteristic? Weren't the Waltz-loving Viennese more relaxes than they appear to be here?
It was the inablility of young Dr. Semmelweiss to explain his case cogently that attracted playwright to doctor. Scakler perceived the inability to explain his case as part of the man's character and, by inference, part of all our characters. He was aware of the hurdles as well as the potential drama.
An experienced British actor, Colin Blakely is now challenged to inveigle us into accepting him as a thoroughly average, normal young doctor. Through this means - the audience's "yes-that's-about-how-I'd-behave" feeling - the tragedy is achieved.This is a gathering tragedy of poor communications, impatience, frustration and madness which can be used by the actor to pull us into participation. He first must win us.
Forget critic Martin Gottfried's suggestion in the program notes of Bertolt Brecht. Sackler says he intends to be the opposite of Brecht, to involves us.
One's allienation from the play also can stern from the overpowering settings of designer John Wulp.
This happens to be a period when designers seems to be taking over from the playwrights, perhaps because playwrights have been providing feeble material. Distrustful of scripts, producers and directors have been allowing designers too much sway and too much spending money. Scenery is now box office.
The triangular pylons Wulp created to serve Sackler's 19 scenes of "Semmelweiss" must have seemed, in drawings and models, and inspired resolution to the playwright's challenge. But they have the effect of removing the play from the audience. Scenes are changed by actors pushing pylons. This takes time. The immensity of the sets and the energy of the players grab our attention, detracting from their roles. The Brechtian lighting above removes us further from the play.
It is, of course, far too late to do much about Wulp's distracting pylons, which do nothing to suggest Vienna to a century ago, and in fact pointedly avoid indicating any particular time or place. Such choices, once made, cannot fundamentally be altered. But on the small Folger stage, designer Hugh Lester manages three distinct acting areas which serve Brian Clark's "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" as a designer should serve a play which folds in and out, as "Semmelweiss" also does, in a seamless succession of scenes.
That Sackler's study of Semmelweiss as tragic figure finally does involve us in the third act reflects that there is strong drama here. But the power should be felt by Act I, scene two, when, after an expository start, we first glimpse the admissions room of the obstetrical division. Here is where Semmelweiss gets his first clue that the doctors' patients are dying while the midwives' new mothers and babies and surviving.
The tensions must start swiftly but more quietly, more subtly. We must be lured into the play, not kept at a remove from it. We should be within the play, of it, not out of it.