“The Shadow Saver” wisely opts to leave emergency-room gore to TV, but despite this, and despite our current fascination with doctors and diseases, the Independent Eye’s new play about an ER physician is DOA.
The central question addressed is whether losing the battle with mortality day after day, year after year fries the soul. Surrounded by human misery, Dr. Greiner (co-author Conrad Bishop) begins to break down psychologically, and then physically, when he learns he has a genetic disease. His marriage is a mess, he keeps forgetting his daughter’s orthodontist’s appointment, he’s named in a malpractice suit and he obsesses about a beautiful dead patient who gave him an origami dove.
The long, intermissionless action shifts from the emergency room, where patients whine and complain and accuse doctors of killing them, to Greiner’s kitchen-table talks with his wife (co-author Elizabeth Fuller), who tries to catch his attention long enough to hold a conversation if not save their marriage. Slicing through both these realistic settings are the doctor’s grotesque fantasies of self-accusation and judgment wherein he is his own patient — an intriguing idea that is dropped rather than developed.
The characters in the dream sequences and the patients in the hospital are played by Neill Hartley in various guises standing in an illuminated window, and by a series of life-size puppets for whom he does the voices, which are not distinct enough to create gender, much less character.
The play presents humanity as mean-spirited, stupid and cowardly (with the exception of the beautiful, dead origami-making Laurie, also played by Fuller), a judgment reinforced by the ugly, caricaturish puppets. Dr. Greiner is supposed to be a man so sensitive, ironical and humorous (his classmates in medical school, he tells us, had “all that removed”), that he is necessarily at odds with the dehumanizing practice of emergency medicine. But all his complaints are so generic, all the talk so puerile and repetitive, that we have no idea who this guy is. Is he too good for this nasty job or just a self-absorbed incompetent? After about half an hour, nobody much cares whether this physician will heal himself, but not a sane person in the audience would take an aspirin on his advice.
The thin, unfocused script is further undermined by Bishop’s one-note portrayal — there is no change from the private man to the professional, and the long gray ponytail and dusty loafers hardly look the part. Fuller is always good but vastly underutilized here, and the lack of a director is apparent in Bishop’s playing the climactic scene — the burning of the origami dove — sitting with his back to the audience. The secondary characters are all burlesques (a judge in a long white wig), making the doctor’s psychic break more cheap satire than Kafkaesque terror.
“The Shadow Saver” lacks both drama and human sympathy. It doesn’t get anywhere near our fascination with our medicine men, nor does it reveal their burdens and thrills as they mess with mortality.