Streep battles doctors, epilepsy in 'do no harm'

February 15, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Meryl Streep's return to network television tomorrow night at 9 on ABC may not win her many friends in the medical profession, which, it suggests, is more interested in trying out new drugs than treating diseases.

But it could do wonders for her standing among parents, who will appreciate her passionate, but uncomplicated, approach to the role of a mother whose son suffers from an apparently untreatable form of epilepsy.

" ... first do no harm," which borrows its title from the Hippocratic Oath all doctors swear allegiance to, casts Streep as Lori Reimuller, a mother of three living a fairly idyllic Midwestern existence with her truck-driver husband and three children. As the film opens, she's just been given the horse she's wanted all her life (her husband won it in a poker game, which helps explain why he's nicknamed "Lucky Dave"), and the family is all set to go on that Hawaiian vacation they've been planning for years.

All those good things shatter, however, when youngest child Robbie (Seth Adkins, in a remarkable performance) suffers the first of what becomes an endless series of epileptic seizures -- seizures that leave the young boy making animal sounds and twitching uncontrollably on the ground.

The doctors try all sorts of drugs. None of them work, and many of them only make things worse; at one point, Lori looks on in horror at a foam cup that's been eaten away by a drug about to be administered to her son. Even worse, the family has no health insurance and an emotional cipher for a doctor, a woman whose idea of bedside manner is to blithely tell the Reimullers their son is doomed to a life of "progressive retardation."

Determined to avoid the brain surgery the doctor says is Robbie's only hope, Lori sets up shop in the local library and reads every medical manual she can get her hands on. There she finds frequent references -- dating back to the 1920s -- to the "ketogenic diet," a high-fat regimen that reputedly ends seizures in one-third of the patients who try it.

Desperate, and against the wishes of Dr. Nasty (her real name's Dr. Abbasac, but you get the idea), Lori Reimuller takes her son out of the hospital and flies him off to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins Hospital. It's a roll of the dice that could end in tragedy -- Robbie's taken completely off medication -- or triumph.

(Hometown alert: Millicent Kelly, a Hopkins nutritionist who's been administering the ketogenic diet for more than 40 years, plays herself.)

Streep, who won an Emmy for her work in the 1978 miniseries "Holocaust," is wonderful in a role that's unusual for her -- a role that asks her to abandon the fireworks and the accents, and simply react. It would be easy for her to come off like some hysterical banshee, bemoaning her fate (and her son's) to anyone who will listen.

But she doesn't.

Lori Reimuller loves her son but isn't convinced everyone else at the hospital does. In fact, one of the movie's few missteps comes when a family friend makes a point of telling Robbie (and all of us watching) what an extraordinary mother he has.

But the point of the film, certainly the point of Streep's performance, is that she's not a Supermom, but simply a woman struggling to do right by her child.

The movie's emotional high-water mark, however, may come during the closing credits, when it's revealed that bit parts were played by epileptics who tried the ketogenic diet and who have been seizure-free for 62, 36 and 26 years.

That revelation should ensure that director/producer Jim Abrahams gets his point across, that even if your doctor doesn't tell you about it, there's a diet out there that its adherents believe can perform wonders.

It certainly did for Abrahams, who discovered it after doctors had pretty much given up on his young son. Since going on the diet two years ago, Charlie has remained seizure-free.

Pub Date: 2/15/97

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