Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun, Juliet Stevenson, Doña Croll, and Jamie Schwarz in The Doctor, Park Avenue Armory, 2023 Photo credit: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

The Doctor

At Park Avenue Armory, NYC

Written by:
Nella Vera
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Anchored by a powerhouse performance by Juliet Stevenson, Robert Icke’s “The Doctor,” now playing at NYC’s Park Avenue Armory, is a fascinating new play that ponders questions about science, faith, and identity politics. 

Based on a 1912 play, “Professor Bernhardi” by Arthur Schnitzler, it features Stevenson as Ruth Wolff, a brilliant, yet headstrong and acerbic doctor. She is a woman driven entirely by scientific purpose with little patience for those less competent or demonstrating a lack of grammatical fluency. While the audience delights in her high intellect and sharp tongue, the staff at the dementia institute that she leads mostly fears her.

The main plot, and subsequent conflict, in the play, follows a 14-year-old patient suffering from sepsis following a failed, at-home abortion. Ruth, convinced that the patient will die, does her best to treat her pain and make her comfortable so that she may pass in peace. The arrival of a Catholic priest (sent by the child’s parents, who are out of the country) complicates the scene. Ruth refuses to allow him access on the basis that he will upset the young woman, who does not know she is dying.  He, on the other hand, fears for the girl’s mortal soul if he cannot administer the customary last rites. In the waiting room, a heated confrontation between the two leads to Ruth shoving (and possibly slapping) the priest, and in the ensuing tumult, the young woman takes a turn for the worse and dies. The death becomes a much talked-about event, one that divides both the members of the medical establishment as well as the local community.

The event also is the catalyst for the many questions that the play asks the audience to ponder. In the middle of a media firestorm (one that leads to calls for her to step down), Ruth remains intractable in her belief that she did no wrong. Others, including some on the institute staff, do not agree. We learn that Ruth is Jewish (though secular); she is asked to consider whether she would have made a different decision if she were Catholic – she is adamant that she only considers science when treating patients.

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor, Park Avenue Armory, 2023 Photo credit: Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory

Through the course of the play, we learn several other surprising details:  that most of the hospital staff is Jewish (a fact that is played up by the media), that the priest that Ruth pushed and dismissed is Black (a fact that leads to accusations of bias, conscious or not), and that Ruth has a life partner of indeterminate gender and race who suffers from dementia (a fact that the deeply private Ruth chooses not to reveal to anyone, even if it might garner some sympathy for her plight.)

Was she wrong not to account for the patient’s faith especially if it brings a ritual that might provide comfort? Emboldened by social media and public rhetoric, the Christian staff members of the institute argue adamantly that Christian doctors will provide different care than those of other faiths. Is Ruth the victim of anti-Semitism? After all, the young woman deserved a peaceful, gentle passing, which Ruth was providing. The priest was a stranger, appearing suddenly without prior notice from the parents. And perhaps a clue that the patient was not herself deeply Catholic is the situation that led to her hospitalization – she sought an abortion, an act that is strictly opposed by the church. A split-second decision had to be made – can she be blamed for not admitting a total stranger to her patient’s deathbed? The media scrutiny, particularly on the Jewish versus Christian makeup of the staff and board begins to pit them all against each other.

The play leaves the conclusions to the audience and in its structure, forces viewers to look at the situation from unexpected viewpoints. Except for Ruth, the cast is made up of individuals who do not reflect the gender or race of the characters. Revealed late in the play, it turns out to be a brilliant set up to force the audience to address its own bias and preconceptions. Intriguingly, Ruth’s romantic partner is played by a Black woman though the character is referred to as “Charlie” and the gender, ethnicity or race are never specified.

Stevenson stuns in a dynamic, virtuoso performance. The words tour de force seem inadequate to describe what this actor delivers on stage.  Giving a fully committed, raw portrait of a woman who never wavers from her convictions, she nonetheless remains an enigma to the end.

“The Doctor” continues at the Park Avenue Armory through August 19, 2023.  Tickets and information at this link.

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