Review: ‘Who Lives?’

The kidney dialysis machine, invented by Seattle-based physician Dr. Belding Scribner, is now such an accepted and universally utilized tool of medicine, it is almost incomprehensible that it was developed only 37 years ago. By 1962 there were only enough machines available to save 12 people out of the more than 1,000 candidates in Washington alone who were dying of kidney failure. Playwright Christopher Meeks has penned an often moving but ultimately ponderous dramatization based on the activities of the real-life Seattle Artificial Kidney Center and the committee of ordinary citizens who were chosen to decide who would live and who would die. Director Debbie Devine has interjected period video and recorded pop music as islands of respite within Meeks' sea of words, but that only serves to add unneeded weight to the production. To personalize the astronomically difficult task of the committee, Meeks has created a distinctively complex character in Gabriel, a misanthropic attorney who is played to the egotistical, bad-tempered hilt by John Pleshette. He is abusive to his long-suffering wife, Margaret (performed with a heart-rending sense of love lost by Cynthia Steele), and a tyrant to his thoroughly meek and submissive secretary, Jenny, the wonderfully pliant Dawne Hindle. When the dying Gabriel discovers the committee has passed him over, he utilizes his ruthless abilities of persuasion to gain the treatment he needs to stay alive. The committee acquiesces on one condition: that he become one of them. It is while dealing with the process of playing God over the lives of others that Gabriel discovers his own long-dormant humanity.

Performances of the ensemble of committee members are outstanding — necessary because the one thing this committee can do is talk. Composed of cleric Father William (George Pappas), housewife Francine (Cathy Lind Hayes), small businessman Lazlo (Michael Monks), working girl Alice (Stacy Cunningham), laborer Baxter (Doug Burch), physician Dr. Shuster (Silas Cooper) and Gabriel, all viewpoints, whether they be prejudices or enlightenment, are expressed over and over to the point of mind-numbing redundancy.

Playwright and director should have done a better job of knowing when to move on. The playing of such tasty entr’acte musical baubles as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and Ray Charles’ rendition of “Born to Lose” is not an adequate substitute for clarity and brevity.

However, adding immeasurably to the constantly shifting scenic settings are the efficient modular set design of John M. Binkley and the mood-filled lighting of Kathi O’Donohue. Also deserving credit is Wade Sheeler for his evocative sound design.

Who Lives?

24th Street Theatre; 99 seats; $10 top. Opened July 19; Alma Cielo; reviewed July 27, 1997; runs until Aug. 24.

Production

Brenda Friend presents a play in two acts by Christopher Meeks, directed by Debbie Devine. Set design, John M. Binkley;

Creative

lighting design, Kathi O'Donohue; costume design, Rachel Sage; sound design, Wade Sheeler; multimedia consultant, David D. Willis; violinist, Running time: 2 hours, 10 mins.

Cast

Cast: John Pleshette (Gabriel), Cynthia Steele (Margaret), Dawne Hindle (Jenny), Silas Cooper (Dr. Shuster), George Pappas (Father William), Doug Burch (Baxter/McKnight), Michael Monks (Lazlo), Cathy Lind Hayes (Francine), Stacy Cunningham (Alice).
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