The Concord Journal

Play Review:

Rooting for the hero to die

By Mark N. Angney  

Heroes are mighty scares in the first place these days, and then, gosh, when we finally find one whome we can root for in the Concord Players production of "Whose Life Is It Anyway" we find ourselves hoping he'll die! Is there no justice?

And such is precisely the question thrust before us by that hero, Ken Harrison, a British sculptor whose sharp wit and active intelligence are about all that survived an outo accident which crushed his spinal column and left him hospitalized, a self-declared "vegetable."

Four months returning to a medically stable condition and a prognosis that he'll be able to live only with the constant presence of modern medical machinery and personnel have led him to decide that he doesn't want to. We join him, played admirably from a hospital bed for the duration by Jay McManus, as he is just starting his challenge of the system which won't let him die as he chooses - with dignity.

The action of the play chronicles his saddening yet uplifting maneuvers around barriers of traditional medical ethics, contemporary professional pollyanna-ism, and legal wranglings which lead ultimately to a bedside hearing and decision on whose life, in fact, it is.

But despite the sobering questions about death, free will, and social morality posed during Ken's quest, we smile quite a bit and even laugh some. It's a sad play but not a depressing one, more an exhortation to personal activism and a condemnation of passivity.

Ken is a man whose body may be broken but whose spirit is alive and well, thank you. He demonstrates his indomitable humanness with humor, a way no other living creature can. McManus delivers Ken's witticisms and drolleries increasingly well as the play progresses. He slows his repartee with nurses and doctors to a more credible and ironically thoughful pace. His sexual double-entendres and oglings come across at times more like adolescent lewdness (as he himself once admits) than adult black humor, but we forgive him.



Dr. Emerson, played by Ken Happe, mouths the predictable Hippocratic counters to Ken's demand, but we never quite believe him; he doesn't rise above possessiveness of Ken as product to reach a legitimate empathy for him as a person.

Catherine Cooper's performance as Dr. Joan Scott is more credible. She grows more and more sympathetic to Ken's wishes and ultimately is just about the only non-obstructionist in the hospital (read: society.) She apparently already possesses the heart monitor Dr. Emerson declares he needs in act one and which he indicates in the final scene of the play perhaps Ken's courage has put on order for him.

The supporting cast is strong (some attempting British accents, some not' some observing imaginary doors and walls, some not,) particularly the tough-as-nails nurse supervisor Sister Anderson, played by Jean English.

Director Patricia Butcher had a choice - to stage this late '70s work by Britisher Brian Clark (whose name inexplicably is omitted from an otherwise excellent program) either as a serious drama with comic lines or as a comedy with some serious lines. Her staging and delivery decisions indicate the latter. The play can take it. She gives several moments of sexual banter ("sterilizing instruments") and bits of burlesque (John the orderly of Sister Anderson) and verbal zingers ("a stainless steel heart") front and/or center presentation. Such decisions inevitably relegate to the rear of the stage the more cerebral dialogue about euthanasia ethcics and the insanity or sanity of Ken's choice and thereby distance us from them both visually and emotionally.

Similarly, we have our attention diffused at times by peripheral lighting on the nurses' station or the doctor's desk or the supply closet when the real action, the ethical and moral debate on free-will, goes on center stage.

The play does move crisply, however, and we leave after two hourss not only wishing we had the backbone of our hero, Ken, but also knowing that we saw some excellent theater.

Mark N. Angney teaches English at Concord-Carlisle Regional Hight School and free-lances articles and reviews in the greater Boston area. He currently lives in Jamaica Plain.