Brian Mani and John Pribyl in American Players Theatre's <i>The Doctor's Dilemma</i>
In the first years of the 20th century, playwright George Bernard Shaw was very concerned about the medical profession: how many unqualified quacks offered their services with impunity, how tempting it would be for doctors to act in the interest of financial gain instead of patient health, how few remedies were available to the working and lower classes, and how physicians' egos could get the better of them. Shaw was so concerned that he wrote an 80-page treatise to accompany his play The Doctor's Dilemma. It delves into even more medical and social issues related to health care. Some of them seem quaint today, but others are shockingly relevant, as American Players Theatre shows in its production of Dilemma (through Oct. 3).
Judiciously edited and smartly framed, the play is both enlightening and entertaining. Thanks to a uniformly stellar cast and Aaron Posner's brilliant direction, it is also emotionally engaging.
The play opens with the titular physician, Dr. Colenso Ridgeon, receiving a knighthood to recognize his groundbreaking work in curing tuberculosis. Imbued with depth and intellect by Brian Mani, Ridgeon is a humble, sincere man of science who struggles to make medical decisions for the greater good. His dilemma is whether to use one last dose of medicine to save a friend, an impoverished physician who works with the poor, or treat a gifted but morally bankrupt young artist, whose gorgeous and charming wife comes to his office to plead her husband's case.
In an interesting and refreshing twist, the actors introduce the subject of the play -- complete with references to current medical crises such as the Ebola outbreak -- by addressing the audience directly. They set each scene and introduce their roles in this way as well, without the accents they use while in character. The performers stand, bathed in bright footlights, reciting snippets of Shaw's stage directions, which are both witty and elaborate. This trope allows audiences to glimpse the specific intentions of the author and reminds them that they've been asked to be active participants in an ongoing discussion of the ideas presented onstage.
Perhaps this is necessary because it's so easy to be charmed by the players in the production. As Sir Patrick Cullen, the cynical Irish doctor and confidant to Ridgeon, Paul Bentzen is delightfully world-weary and wise. As Mr. Butler Walpole, a "surgeon" who reduces every malady to blood poisoning curable by the removal of a fictional organ, John Taylor Philips is as dogmatic and self-assured as he is amusing. David Daniel's gentle portrayal of the stuttering, penniless and sick Dr. Blenkinsop is heartfelt. And as the foppish royal physician Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington, John Pribyl represents a well-intended but affected member of the upper class. He delivers some of the most challenging speeches of the evening with panache.
In the play's second half, the dilemma shifts to an imagined love triangle involving Jennifer Dubedat (a radiant Abbey Siegworth, clothed in an array of gorgeous bustle dresses), her talented scoundrel of a husband husband, Louis (Samuel Taylor), and Ridgeon.
As the artistic genius and ne'er do well, Taylor is fascinating. Smart, beguiling and unapologetic, he seizes any opportunity to manipulate others for his gain. As the passionate and articulate Jennifer, Siegworth is a strong sparring partner for Mani's Ridgeon.
In the final moments of the play, two characters believe they’ve acted honorably, even though their conclusions about how to use the medicine are vastly different. The disillusioned doctor realizes that there are situations he cannot accurately diagnose or predict.
At a time when access to health care, rising medical costs and ethical questions continue to populate the headlines, Dilemma is a lovely and evocative addition to the conversation. As Posner articulates in his director's notes, "Shaw's plays and ideas are not only still relevant, they are still radical."