Vagabond actress' performance shows Baltimore community theater at its best Challenging role: Binnie Ritchie Holum is riveting as a quadriplegic patient fighting for the right to die In 'Whose Life Is It Anyway?'

January 20, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The starring role in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?", Brian Clark's play about a quadriplegic patient, is a challenge for any actor. Immobilized in a hospital bed for the entire play, the performer must create the character solely through voice and facial expressions.

So it is all the more interesting that at the Vagabond Players, the lead is being played by a performer who is primarily a dancer, Binnie Ritchie Holum. Perhaps the restrictions appealed to Holum, who often performs works with the opposite restrictions -- creating characters solely through movement, without a single spoken word.

Whatever her motivation, the result is stunning, an intense performance that is an example of Baltimore community theater at its best. Holum's body may be immobile, but her intellect and emotions are in constant motion. She's angry, funny, smart, vulnerable and extremely self-assured.

As Holum's casting indicates, director Patrick Martyn has staged the female version of this play, which was written for a male lead (Tom Conti played it on Broadway; Richard Dreyfuss on film) but was subsequently performed on Broadway by Mary Tyler Moore.

The subject is certainly gender-free. An active, young, intelligent sculptor is paralyzed in a car accident and hires a lawyer to fight for her right to be discharged from the hospital. In this case, that's the same as the right to die, since the sculptor cannot survive without hospital care.

Besides changing the gender of the patient, who is called Claire Harrison in this version, Clark also changed the gender of several other characters, including Harrison's physician, now a man, and her lawyer, now a woman. Director Martyn added a few changes of his own, and for the most part, the gender-switching works.

The one exception is the sexual banter Harrison engages in, particularly at the start of the play. Her broad double entendres seem better suited to a man than a woman -- even though the character herself later registers dismay at how risque her repartee has become since the accident.

In addition to Holum, Martyn elicits fine performances from several other actors. Richard Price exudes compassion as Harrison's physician, a man who empathizes with her but is clearly troubled by the knowledge that if she wins her lawsuit, she'll die. A minor romance is kindled between him and Harrison's lawyer (Lynda McClary), and it is indicative of the credibility of their performances that after the play, I found myself wondering whether the awful burden their characters shared would bring them together or drive them apart.

Steven Lenet also shines as a cheerful orderly who is one of the few people who doesn't treat Harrison with condescension. As the hospital's staff psychiatrist, however, Bruce Levy comes across as more of a caricature, and though Jerry Khatcheressian is properly overbearing as the hospital's autocratic medical director, his performance occasionally wavered on opening night.

Debuting two decades ago, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" pre-dated Dr. Jack Kevorkian's highly publicized work in assisting suicides. Although the public and the medical community are presumably more enlightened now about the right to die -- as well as about the play's related issue of a patient's right to participate in his or her own treatment -- the controversy that dogs Kevorkian proves the play is still timely.

It's a play that, in some scenes, turns into more of a debate than a drama. Clark keeps it involving, however, by making the main character three-dimensional. Holum's performance makes her compelling as well.

'Whose Life Is It Anyway?'

Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 8

Tickets: $10

Call: 410-563-9135

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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