'Room' presents an obscured view of victims of the demands of beauty Theater review: The issues are nicely fleshed out in 'The Waiting Room,' but we would like to know more about the patients.

January 01, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

We've all had the experience: You sit in a doctor's waiting room for an interminable period of time, wondering about the other patients, wondering if the doctor will find something wrong, wondering if he remembers you're there.

Lisa Loomer's "The Waiting Room" probes this experience with a decidedly feminist spin. In the process, the play -- slickly produced at Washington's Arena Stage -- answers many of those pesky waiting-room questions.

But this serious-minded, humor-inflected play also falls victim to one of the very criticisms it raises. Just as Loomer chastises doctors for not getting to know their patients, so her play tends to gloss over its characters, focusing more on issues than the people they affect.

And Loomer's central characters are an interesting bunch. In the style of British playwright Caryl Churchill, Loomer juxtaposes characters from different time periods and cultures. The three women who form a bond in a doctor's waiting room are a devoted 18th-century Chinese wife named Forgiveness From Heaven (June Kyoko Lu), an unhappily married Victorian housewife named Victoria (Pamela Nyburg), and a gum-popping bleached-blond secretary from New Jersey named Wanda (Linda Gehringer).

All three are victims of their society's perceptions of beauty. Mrs. From Heaven is suffering the gangrenous side effects of bound feet; Victoria's organs are shifting after years of wearing a corset that gives her a 16-inch waist (her primary malady, however, is hysteria, which her doctor husband believes can be cured by removing her ovaries); and Wanda, who has repeatedly had her breasts enlarged, is diagnosed with breast cancer.

The playwright brings two other especially intriguing characters to the mix -- the women's doctor and his Jamaican nurse. Played by John Bennett Perry initially as a male chauvinist, the doctor becomes increasingly sympathetic after he himself is diagnosed with cancer. He is also, however, one of the chief characters we'd like to know better.

The nurse -- portrayed by versatile Leah Maddrie, who also plays a half-dozen supporting characters of various races, nationalities and genders -- is the play's smartest character. The daughter of a Jamaican witch doctor, she has shrewd insights into much that's going on behind the scenes, including the play's chief scandal: a pharmaceutical company's role in coercing the FDA to shut down a competing experimental cancer clinic.

Issues like this, as well as such matters as male doctors' paternalistic attitudes toward female patients, patients' ownership of their own bodies and the ever-present hobgoblin of health insurance all crop up throughout the play. Important topics, they are guaranteed to promote debate.

Director David Schweizer and his accomplished cast do first-rate work, as does James Youmans' transformational set, which constantly reminds us the play is about a hospital, even if a scene takes place on a golf course. But "The Waiting Room" ultimately allows debate to overshadow such dramatic imperatives as character development and interaction.

Even so, a dose of "The Waiting Room" should probably be prescribed to all those in the medical, insurance and research fields, and especially those involved in national health-care reform. That, after all, seems to be the playwright's target audience.

'Waiting Room'

Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays and noon Wednesdays. Through Jan. 28

Tickets: $21-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

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