Shaw's 'Dilemma' speaks to today's health care debate

April 12, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When artistic director Michael Kahn chose to include George Bernard Shaw's "The Doctor's Dilemma" in the Shakespeare Theatre's season, he was undoubtedly influenced by the ongoing national debate on health care reform.

It's a debate Shaw would have relished. And indeed, many of his remarks in the play's lengthy preface, as well as in the play itself -- which opened at the Washington theater last night under Kahn's direction -- seem especially pertinent today.

"Until the medical profession becomes a body of men trained and paid by the country to keep the country in health it will remain what it is at present: a conspiracy to exploit popular credulity and human suffering," he wrote in the preface.

But timely as Shaw's views on medicine may be, Kahn's stimulating and well-balanced production makes it clear that "The Doctor's Dilemma" is much more than a play about medical care. It is also an exploration of the nature of art and of the comparative worth of artistic vs. scientific genius.

The dilemma at the core of the plot is this: Recently knighted for his discovery of a cure for tuberculosis, Sir Colenso Ridgeon -- played with keen intelligence and endearing human weakness by Brian Murray -- can squeeze only one more patient into his busy practice. However, two consumptive men vie to be that patient.

One is a gifted but dishonorable artist, portrayed with

skin-crawling disagreeableness by Derek Smith.

The other is one of Ridgeon's old medical school classmates, a struggling physician who, as played by Philip Goodwin, exudes honor from every tattered thread of his second-hand clothing.

Two factors complicate Ridgeon's decision. First, he has fallen in love with the artist's enchanting wife, who is so devoted to her husbandthat she readily excuses all of his many faults. Haviland Morris brings such intense conviction to this role that she practically makes her cad of a husband seem suited for sainthood.

Secondly, Ridgeon's medical methods are constantly challenged by his fellow doctors, each of whom staunchly defends his own point ofview and each of whom is exquisitely and humorously portrayed here -- Ted van Griethuysen as the pompous physician to the royal family, Floyd King as a knife-happy surgeon and Emery Battis as the loyal defender of the Old Guard.

But there are also some textual dilemmas underlying Shaw's script. Despite his protests that only he can administer the cure, why can't Ridgeon train another doctor to treat the second patient? In addition, surely doctors -- even those with God complexes -- do not choose their patients on the basis of, as Ridgeon puts it, "not only whether the man could be saved, but whether he was worth saving."

These flaws may explain why "The Doctor's Dilemma" isn't produced more often. But the Shakespeare Theatre's skillful cast makes it easy and enjoyable to get caught up in Shaw's challenging moral arguments, as well as in his satire of the medical profession. The result is not only more entertaining, but often as instructive as much of this country's current health care debate.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Doctor's Dilemma"

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (no performance tonight), 7:30 p.m. Sundays, matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through May 15

Tickets: $12-$45

Call: (202) 393-2700

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