Subtle, it’s not. But “The Line,” a documentary-style play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen (“The Exonerated”), cuts to the bone. In a series of tightly-focused closeup shots, seven yeomen theater performers take on the personas of real-life doctors, nurses, paramedics and other personnel in New York hospitals who caught the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic and cared for its first victims.
It doesn’t get any more intimate than this livestreamed event, released on YouTube and on the Public Theater’s website. Directed with intense rigidity by Blank, the performers look directly into a single camera to speak the minds of those shellshocked medical staff who cared for the early cases of sick and dying patients. The rotating monologues, based on interviews with medical personnel closely interviewed by Blank and Jensen, are stripped-down and hyper-real. With the kind of work they do, these people have no time for idle chit-chat.
Every one of these frontline medical workers is admirable and every voice is harrowing. Individually they’re a mixed bag, but collectively they share a single character feature: unswerving dedication to their jobs. Just don’t call them “heroes.” They hate that.
Oscar (John Ortiz) is a paramedic from Queens who found his calling when he was downtown after 9/11 and saw the devastation, felt “the sorrow,” and impulsively asked someone about driving an ambulance. Poof! He was suddenly driving an ambulance.
Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint) is a nurse who got the calling at a young age. “I remember being 11 or 12 and praying for a way to help people.” Her first hospital job was caring for geriatric patients, and when the pandemic first hit, it swept many of them away. Sharon is a grandmother, and the disease almost got her, too. But she survived and went straight back to work because “I love my gerrys.”
You know how some people don’t find their true calling — say, as an actor — until later in life? David (Santino Fontana) started out as an actor who loved doing accents. When he became a nurse, he used his talents to entertain COVID-19 patients who were starved for a laugh.
Vikram (Arjun Gupta), the son of Indian immigrants, is an oncology doctor who works in the emergency department. “You don’t come to the emergency department unless you’re having the worst day of your life.” He says. “In the emergency department, everyone is having the worst day of their lives.” The most articulate voice in this one-hour piece, Vikram has given a lot of thought to the realities of getting sick in New York. Black and brown people, he notes, just don’t have the same survival rates as white people. There’s nothing fair about this, just as there’s nothing fair about a corrupt health system that literally demands “your money or your life.”
Ed (Jamey Sheridan) was a medic in Vietnam, where soldiers knew who to call out for. Here, “nobody really knows who we are until you call 911,” he says. “It’s always cops and firemen.” And no, he doesn’t want a parade; but he wouldn’t mind a fatter paycheck. “I’ll be eatin’ cat food with the pension I got.” But don’t think he’s nostalgic for the good old days in Mosul. If you ask him, New York is fast becoming a battlefield in this age of pandemonium.
Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), who emigrated from Trinidad, is an oncology nurse and so is his husband. He’s been working in the same hospital for 22 years and he’s proud to say so. If nurses are a bit unsung, he doesn’t care; he knows who he is. “When you go for surgery, the doctor does what they have to do – but you can only come out of that hospital alive, I believe, if you have a good nurse.”
Jennifer (Alison Pill) is a first-year intern who really didn’t know what she was getting into. She works in emergency at a hospital in Brooklyn whose patients are mainly from the Caribbean. “It’s a public hospital, so the patients are poor, some of the poorest.” So they’re always understaffed and overworked – but they’ve learned to be resourceful, really resourceful – and she tells a jaw-dropping story about the persistent lack of medical supplies. Having run out of proper medical tape to attach a ventilator to a dying patient’s face, she grabs some ordinary sticky tape and makes do. “Yeah, we were really thrown into the deep end of the pool.”
But do they complain? Not really, although Sharon, the geriatric nurse, allows as how “I expect to be treated with dignity and respect.” Ed takes a more cynical view of the situation — a New York attitude — when he says that Washington really stiffed New York in this pandemic.
A lot of people will watch – should watch — “The Line” online. Will it change things? Hey, it’s an election year.