Robert Icke’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi titled The Doctor removes much of the satiric humor of Schnitzler’s five-act play. Icke does this in the service of highlighting current issues for our time. The Doctor, running at the Park Avenue Armory until August 19, received rave reviews when it opened in London in 2022. It is a thought-provoking, breathtaking must-see.
Icke also directed the superb performances and envisioned the production’s stark minimalism (Hildegard Bechtler, set and costume design). The production employs a revolving platform stage. It is a light tan color, like the back walls which follow it in a curve. A long, unadorned table and chairs placed on the platform create the space. The lighting (by Natasha Chivers) is hospital-bright white. Tom Gibbons’ sound design and composition provide the terrifying atmosphere in Act II.
‘The Drummer’ inexorably beats out events
Suspended above the stage in the central spotlight, the drum kit gleams. At the introduction, the intermission and conclusion, Hannah Ledwidge energetically slaps out the rhythmic beats. Symbolizing fate’s inexorability or the domino effect, her scintillating percussion suggests events moving to their inevitable conclusion.
Thematically, The Doctor juxtaposes faith and science, ethics and political expediency, equity and bias, facts and misinformation. Tackling these polarities, the characters confront questions about death as the gatekeepers who preside over the entrance to its realm.
The conflict and initial circumstance, updated from Professor Bernahardi (1912), involve a Catholic teenager. When she attempts to end her pregnancy in her fourth month by taking an abortion pill, disaster envelopes her.
The doctors discuss the dire circumstances
Dr. Wolff and other doctors discuss the circumstances, but we never “see” the teenager. First, we hear that her body has reacted with an unexpected complication of bleeding. Instead of seeking medical help, the teen panics, driven by fear of her Catholic sins (the pregnancy and abortion). By the time someone finds her, the untreated infection turns septic. Dying, the teenager arrives at the hospital where Dr. Ruth Wolff (the incredible Juliet Stevenson) attempts to save her.
The teenager has taken charge of her own life in a series of tragic decisions. Her parents’ Catholicism and strictness have contributed to the dire circumstances. While the teen hovers in a semi-conscious, drugged state of euphoria, between life and death, a priest (Jonathan Fielding) visits, having been called by the parents to administer the last rites. Both Schnitzler and Icke grow vague about why the parents themselves don’t show up with the priest to comfort their daughter.
The parents leave their daughter dying in a hospital
In Icke’s adaptation, the parents keep their plans to go on a trip, heartlessly abandoning their daughter to die without them. Instead, they permit her to receive “comfort” during her deathbed confession to the priest. However, this requires her conscious acknowledgement of her mortal sins. This expiation, while suffering the terror of dying, allows her the entrance to heaven. To guarantee her entrance to a pleasant afterlife, sanctioned by her parents and Catholicism, the priest rages that he must see her.
Nevertheless, Dr. Wolff receives no instructions from the parents or the teen for her last moments on earth. Does she wish to confess or even see the priest? Wolff cannot clearly gauge, so he prevents the priest from entering her room, telling him that the teen is in a euphoric, semi-rational, peaceful state. If she sees the priest and knows she is dying, it will cause stress and physical harm. Instead of dying peacefully, the teen will suffer a nightmare death.
The priest believes the teen must be given absolution
On the other hand, the priest believes if she doesn’t have absolution, she will go to hell for eternity. When he attempts to push his way into the teen’s room, Dr. Wolff touches his shoulder to stop him. Subsequently, the circumstance rises to “incident” level and that must be acted upon.
Meanwhile, the Catholic nurse has told the teen a priest is coming. Aware of her impending death, the teen strikes out physically against everyone near her. It is precisely as Dr. Wolff predicted would happen and tried to prevent.
Forcing his beliefs on the doctor
Furthermore, the priest’s obstreperousness suggests inappropriate behavior, disregarding the doctor’s extensive expertise and presuming that his faith trumps science and medical wisdom. It seems biased personnel assumed because of his priestly status and his race (he is Black we learn later) he should be permitted to see the patient, ignoring Dr. Wolff’s orders, expertise and judgment. Icke and Schnitzler both de-emphasize this “slap in the face” to her authority and preeminence (she founded the wing of the hospital where she has taken charge of the teen). An overriding factor minimizes her ill treatment: Dr. Wolff is Jewish. Clearly, antisemitism may be afoot, as well as bias against Catholicism. The situation warrants an investigation. Who is guilty and of what?
A fatal flaw
In his extraordinary adaptation Icke reveals how this initial circumstance explodes into a volcano of lawsuits, public outcry, internal discord and the censure of Dr. Wolff. The varied reactions to her decision become the savory, delectable meat of the two-hour, forty-five minute feast of a play.
Icke’s glorious version suspends race and gender identities. It forces the audience to adhere to every word or miss crucial drama and characterization. For example various characters use the priest’s race and Catholicism to indict Dr. Wolff’s response to him. However, we only learn this later in the play. With the exception of Dr. Wolff (female), and the priest (male), gender roles become indistinguishable. Bechtler’s costumes give no clue. Only Icke’s dialogue “outs” the characters.
Fluid racial and gender identities
Sami (the phenomenal Matilda Tucker), the teenager whom Dr. Wolff befriends, feels humiliated when the doctor reveals her sexual identity. Another character, Charlie (Nicole Lewis when I saw the show), remains gender-fluid and unknowable. In Schnitzler’s play all the pompous, male doctors humorously quarrel with each other. Essentially, humor in The Doctor lands in Dr. Wolff’s lines.
However, in both plays, colleagues alter and skew the facts. Furthering their own agendas as they respond to official inquiry, Dr. Wolff’s colleagues cloud and complicate the events. The public, stoked to form opinions, gains critical mass against Dr. Wolff and her supporters. Board-member donors add their biased responses and take action. Chaos reigns. Dr. Wolff and her partner receive death threats.
Elements of Greek Tragedy
As a whirlwind grows from a “storm in a teacup,” public sentiment, political agendas and unconscious bias occlude Dr. Wolff’s wondrous former exploits. On a collision course with destiny, as in a Greek tragedy, Dr. Wolff’s stubborn refusal to compromise yields the inevitable.
The Doctor covers tremendous ground. Its vitality lies in Stevenson’s extraordinary Dr. Wolff. One can’t take one’s eyes off her. What a gobsmacking, vibrant, “in the moment” performance! Icke shepherds the ensemble with dynamism so they, too, shine. Every aspect of this production coheres, making it riveting, forceful drama we need to see at this time.
Tickets are available online.