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"Quadriplegics envy paraplegics. You think, 'Man, they've got it made,'" painter Chuck Close once said about his paralyzed life. Close's comment was his weigh-in about living a relative existence when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It's also a reflection that would have been lost on the paralyzed artist portrayed in the Inside Out Theatre Company's production of Whose Life Is It Anyway?
In playwright Brian Clark's troubling drama, sculptor Claire Harrison (played by Sandra Ives) has spent the past two months in a London hospital room after a car accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. Claire is so plucky and randy, you think she's flying high, and it's hard to believe that this witty, energetic woman isn't constantly surrounded by people from her life students from the art school where she once taught, friends, and admirers. But as it turns out, her encounters revolve solely around a new family of nurses, nuns, orderlies. and a pair of good cop/bad cop doctors who keep her sedated against her will.
"My consciousness is all I have, and I must reserve the right to use it," she argues with them. Fair enough. So Claire has decided to fight the medical establishment that's intent on keeping her alive regardless of her wishes. Much of the play is about her battle to stop the drugs as well as her legal case to let her decide how to live. Or not.
Clark's play which has been revised since the early 1980s and last year saw a revival in London is the first professional offering by Inside Out in the almost-secret theater attached to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. Although Hurricane Wilma's onslaught delayed its opening from early November to late December, it does offer a curious counterpoint to the Tut-mania across the way (um, Whose Royal Death Was It Anyway?), its wee poster eclipsed by the giant Tut banners, making it look like a suspicious invitation into some Scientologist backroom.
More than anything else, though, Whose Life is like a teen Baptist hell house, except this one's modeled on the gospel according to Kevorkian as a reminder that if you don't take your life into your own hands, as it were, you might have some well-meaning doctor injecting you with sedatives against your will. The scenes of forced sedation are the most harrowing of this hell house, played out also through an endless ethical argument between the attending physicians.
Fatherly Dr. Emerson (John Archie) views drugs as part of Claire's recovery from depression and eventual acceptance of her new reality. Young Dr. Scott (Antonio Amadeo) represents the counter argument. "We bring her back, give her back her consciousness. But she asks how can she use it," he argues. "We don't have an answer, so we put her to sleep."
Whose Life is a procedural play, like an episode of Law and Order, that plods through ethical debates and then through the legal case that will eventually free Claire. But it's also as sterile as a Law and Order episode or as its generic hospital set, where the highlight is the glowing of digital monitors during the gloaming of scene changes.
You pray that each time the lights come up again, you'll get some solo time with Claire, to perhaps achieve a fuller sense of Claire's art and her connection to sculpting. But as soon as a new scene opens, someone is sure to pop his or her head into the room a naive nurse, a flirtatious orderly, or a matriarchal nun all direct from central casting. The hospital is filled with their sappy daytime television hospital conversations and uninteresting side romances. And the doctors Emerson and Scott are the worst offenders, as they prattle on like soap opera white-coats.
Emerson: "I'm a doctor, not a judge."
Scott: "But isn't it exactly how you're acting? Like a judge?"
Yikes. It doesn't get any better, and as their sparring relationship goes on and on, eventually approaching Monty Python parody, you expect them at any moment to start arguing about the carrying capacity of European versus African swallows.
Despite Sandra Ives' hearty efforts to express with her head and face all the things her body would do otherwise, you never get into the hard core of Claire's internal life. Director Marjorie O'Neill-Butler doesn't give Claire much of a chance for reflection, except during the money shot after a judge rules in Claire's favor that she be released from the hospital most likely a death sentence. Then, if only briefly, she adopts a countenance of "What did I just do?" and you finally get a three-second glimpse inside this woman.
You'd actually derive a much more satisfying perspective on Claire by examining the brilliant design of the playbill's cover art, by Autumn Horne (who also takes on the role of Claire's lawyer in the play). In the design, Claire is an ascending puppet angel with wings represented by two outstretched hands (her hands are her life and freedom?) in an image that breathes more life into the character than any exchange on stage.
Whose Life first produced in London in 1978 is, of course, still provocative. However, we watched this play every night for the first few months of last year and collectively reviewed every sordid scene in the Terri Schiavo drama. Is there anyone whose mind is not made up one way or the other about a person's right to die?