Russ Appleyard, Dan Donohue,
Evelyn Frank, Naomi Monroe,
Davon Russell, Judith Sanford
Brit TV/film writer Allan Cubitt’s 1990 play won several awards in a debut run at Surrey’s Orange Tree Theater. So why the five-year delay in Stateside premiering? That puzzle is solved by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production, which reveals a bizarrely structured, stilted weepie draped in intellectual pretense. Why local laurels were bestowed in the first place remains a mystery.
“The Pool of Bethesda” was inspired by two William Hogarth paintings hanging in London’s St. Bartholomew Hospital, where fictional Dr. Daniel Pearce (Mark Murphey) practices neurosurgery. We learn immediately that the doctor has perished from a brain tumor at the age of 35.
The short period between diagnosis and death is laid out in Act 2, as Daniel agonizes over the sudden switch from professionally detached medico to terminal patient in his own workplace. While sister Ruth (Kirsten Giroux) and colleague Kate (Linda Alper) provide some solace, his already discordant marriage to unfaithful Jane (Dawn Lisall) may be beyond repair. Good-humored orderly Simon (Michael J. Hume) helps crack the bitter reserve of this man who admits he’s “been afraid of life as I am now dying.”
Despite forced efforts at lyricism and tear-duct drainage, Cubitt keeps empathy at arm’s length. His characters range from the stock to the obnoxious — Daniel’s gloomy self-pity and Jane’s snappish demeanor make their reconciliation a particularly unmoving prospect. The stale aura of stiff-upper-lip emotions is rotely updated by plentiful four-letter words.
This tedium is preambled, however, by a first act of striking irrelevance set at St. Bartholomew’s some 250 years earlier. Daniel here is a pioneering brain “expert” (applying drill to strapped-down unfortunates) asked to pose as touch-healing Christ for the title canvas. In the modern-day doctor’s “dream,” Jane is an actress/prostitute with breast cancer, Simon the painter Hogarth.
While thematic parallels between eras are laid out with heavy hand, this mirroring structure never arrives at any useful epiphany. Cubitt might well have jettisoned his first half in favor of granting the central drama expanded depth. What he’s stuck us with instead is pretentiously, needlessly bifurcated, like a dour “Shadowlands” funneled through “Sunday in the Park With George.”
Fontaine Syer’s production doesn’t do much to reveal whatever attraction the script must have held for the fest. Murphey strikes various anguished postures, while Lisall is equally shrill in two eras. Hume provides some welcome grace notes amid an otherwise one-dimensional supporting cast. Pinspots underline internal musings and “important” lines with grating regularity.
The visual package is arresting enough, with med charts and mesh lighting patterns projected across the blackened Bowmer stage. But this design unintentionally proves a sharper metaphor than any Cubitt has to offer — like “The Pool of Bethesda” itself, it’s a glum and affectedly showy frame with few notable objects inside.