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During a pandemic, the medical profession turns to Greek tragedy — to heal

Frances McDormand as Heracles, Frankie Faison and Marjolaine Goldsmith for the Theater of War project. (Theater of War Productions)

They gathered around their computers, to reflect on what tragedies written 2,500 years ago portended for their own crucial modern-day roles.

“Where Heracles was begging his son to end his misery — that really spoke to me,” declared Jadore Mattis, a nurse at Mount Sinai West medical center. “It made me think of the patients, who feel so alone,” said Maureen Bellare, a physician assistant at the same facility. “ ‘To look helplessly upon the suffering,’ ” added David Van De Carr, a respiratory therapist at Mount Sinai Morningside Hospital. “That’s what we have to do, sometimes.”

What provoked the outpouring of quiet anguish over Zoom on Thursday evening was a dramatic collective therapy session, built around scenes from Greek plays performed by Frances McDormand, Frankie Faison and others, and witnessed by more than 1,150 virtual onlookers around the world. It was conducted by Bryan Doerries, a director and translator whose organization, Theater of War, has staged 1,700 performances of this sort since the group’s founding in 2008.

New York’s Mount Sinai Health System hosted the two-hour event, the latest installment of a project titled Theater of War for Frontline Medical Providers. It’s an offshoot of Doerries’s long-standing work aimed at assembling afflicted and stressed communities — wounded soldiers, those oppressed by racism and, now, the nation’s covid-19 warriors — and getting them to open up about their traumas through drama. (On Dec. 6, he’s bringing a virtual presentation of “The Book of Job,” with Bill Murray, to Republican-dominated Knox County, Ohio, in hopes of furthering the cause of political healing.)

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Catharsis is the Greek-derived word for a purging of emotion. That cathartic impulse was evident all evening, beginning with the 20-minute excerpts from Sophocles’s “Philoctetes” and “Women of Trachis” from which McDormand, Faison and Marjolaine Goldsmith and Nyasha Hatendi read. Doerries tailors his play selections to the lives of the intended audience; “Antigone in Ferguson” is one of his most sought-after evenings these days, as it asks audiences of color to ruminate on the story of a woman fighting injustice, who is determined to give a proper burial to a slain brother, against the edict of a vengeful king.

Theater can’t be produced now in its preferred in-person setting — and in the way that Doerries would normally stage his interactive presentations — because of the pandemic in which his Thursday night audience is daily enveloped. Both “Philoctetes” and “Women of Trachis” concern, in great measure, questions of suffering, and the infliction and mitigation of pain. In “Philoctetes,” a soldier exiled to an island must deal with agonizing wounds, and in “Women of Trachis,” a wife carries out a plot against her unfaithful husband that unwittingly ends with his fatal poisoning.

“I am in ruins!” wailed the Oscar-winning McDormand, reading the role of that husband, Heracles, as Heracles’s son, Hyllus, played by Goldsmith, looked on helplessly.

After the performance, Doerries convened a panel of medical workers and support staff to trace the emotional and psychological linkage from Athens to the Upper West Side. “What spoke to you tonight?” Doerries asked. “What touched you as true?” Later he invited the more than 1,000 viewers, some watching from India, Spain, New Zealand or South Africa, to contribute their thoughts, too.

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What a bystander gleaned was a fresh and moving perspective on how ancient tragedies converse with fresh ones, and how bearing witness to suffering remains a profoundly life-changing experience. To look into the faces of the health-care workers, as they described how the Greek characters reminded them of their own challenges, was to be jarred back to a harsh reality. “As a housekeeper,” said Trina Young of Mount Sinai West, “we are the only ones who go into the rooms, beside the doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists.” The country’s other adversities seem to pale in comparison to the ones unfolding daily for the medical workers.

“What these Greek plays traffic in is a certain kind of moral suffering,” Doerries said in an interview Friday. “The plays address this directly, in a way the clinical world won’t necessarily go to. So there’s something about seeing depictions of these moral and ethical challenges portrayed in a polytheistic Greek framework, where people’s defenses go down.”

Doerries created the program for front-line medical workers in May, in a private version for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In that and the public Zoom events that have followed, he’s identified a psychic exhaustion in health-care-industry audiences — and anger at having to justify attention to the pandemic.

“The most common response is this profound and deep sense of betrayal by the public that denies the existence of covid or that can’t adapt to preventive measures in service of a greater good,” Doerries said. “It’s a double betrayal, where these health-care providers have to be the ones convincing the public that the threat is real,” and be responsible for healing, too.

One after another, audience members who volunteered their thoughts drew connections between the plays, the pandemic and the nation’s other ills. “What it’s going to take to heal all the great parts of America is the future, the youth,” said spectator Toveah Mirot, from her Zoom cube. “Healing the virus and the democracy are falling on the shoulders of the young.”

The evening’s director said the Theater of War presentations revealed as much about an audience’s faith in that future as they did about the truths of antiquity. “People ask me where the hope is in all this tragedy,” he told the viewers. “We do all these plays about gods, but really, what we’re talking about is the divine, in humans.”

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