Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2007
In my recent review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Berkshire Theatre Festival I stated that, while there had been many pharmaceutical advances in treating the mentally ill since that play was written in 1963, life on a psych ward is pretty much as insane as it has ever been. But don’t take my word for it, go over to Shakespeare & Company and see the fine production of Joe Penhall’s 2000 play Blue/Orange and it will be made clear to you that Nurse Ratched lives.
Actually, there are no women in Penhall’s play. Instead we meet three men – a young psychiatrist Bruce Flaherty (Jason Asprey), his patient Christopher (LeRoy McClain), and Bruce’s mentor Dr. Robert Smith (Malcom Ingram), the senior consultant at the London psychiatric hospital where the play takes place. Bruce and Robert do not agree on Christopher’s diagnosis or treatment, but it is obvious that Christopher has mental health issues. He claims that the oranges that appear in every scene (I shudder to think of the produce budget for this production) are blue inside and out, and asserts that his father is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada. Confronted with the diametrically opposed opinions of the two doctors, which escalates into an all-out power struggle, he is left virtually on his own to decipher and deal with his illness – a frightening proposition for him and for the society into which he is being released.
“Then you must do what you must do. Be Brave.”
Those words, and a prescription for a “palliative” drug (palliative means that it will relieve, but not cure the condition), are the only tools that Robert sends Christopher out into the world with. Why? Because Robert truly believes that he is able and ready to make it in the outside world? Because “...Government guidelines clearly state that The Community is the preferred and proper place...” for a cure to be effected? Or because the hospital is over crowded: “...beds are Prioritised for Emergency Admissions and Level Ones. Otherwise we’ll wind up with a hospital full of long-term chronic mental patients hurtling about on trolleys – it’ll be like ‘The Wacky Races’.”
Bruce, on the other hand, believes that Christopher is a paranoid schizophrenic, not merely a Borderline Personality Disorder (meaning that his personality is on the border between neurotic and psychotic.) He wants to keep him in the hospital beyond the 28 days he has already been there, the result of an arrest for “appearing to have a mental disorder in a public place,” in order to have time to accurately diagnose the schizophrenia and get the proper combination of medications and outpatient therapy lined up.
Bruce is an underling, Robert is the senior consultant, and, it turns out, Robert does not take kindly to people who disagree with him.
And one of Robert’s favorite theories has to do with the role of race in mental health diagnosis and treatment. Christopher happens to be black, or, in politically correct British parlance, Afro-Caribbean, while Bruce and Robert are white.
“There is more mental illness amongst the Afro-Caribbean population in London that in any other ethnic grouping. Why? Is it the way we’re diagnosing it. Is it us? Is it them?”
For all his years of experience and research into this subject, Robert’s opinion of Christopher and of Bruce remains decidedly ethnocentric. Penhall makes Robert out to be the villain, putting words in his mouth that elicited not just audible gasps and groans but boos and hisses from the audience I attended with. American audiences don’t go in for much booing and hissing. Even Nurse Ratched, who was voted the fifth most frightening film villain in history, did not evoke that kind of audience response over at the BTF because, while race is a factor in Dale Wasserman’s script, Nurse Ratched and the patients she attacks are all white. The Chief, a native American, is spared much of her manipulative venom because she assumes him to be deaf and dumb for most of the play. Although, like Christopher, he ends up reentering the outside world ill-equipped to cope.
But here the differences in race coincide with the differences in social, educational, and economic stature. While Robert spouts the most obviously racist lines and is the one who holds all the power over both Bruce and Christopher, both of the other characters have their own notions about race and class that are evident in their interactions. On close examination all three men are using the race card to gain the upper hand and all three of their points of view are tainted and flawed. But, like Nurse Ratched, Robert cannot be overthrown. Whether or not his way of restoring order is right or even superior to the others, it is the one that prevails.
Penhall’s play is cleanly written and even more economically directed by Timothy Douglas on Tony Cheek’s clinically spare set. According to pre-show interviews with various publications, both Douglas and Shakespeare & Company Artistic Director Tina Packer have wanted to bring this show to Lenox for several years. It made its London debut in 2000 where it swept the UK theatre awards, winning the Olivier Award, the Evening Standard and the Critic’s Circle awards both for Best New Play.
The three actors here are all experienced and capable performers, but Asprey is either putting in less effort or is seriously out-classed by Ingram and McClain because his Bruce comes off as lackluster and pedestrian compared with Ingram’s apology-free villainy and McClain’s portrait of a seriously confused and angry young man.
“...maybe he’s right to be angry and paranoid and depressed and unstable. Maybe it’s the only suitable response to the human condition.”
Or maybe he’s schizophrenic and doomed to a life in and out of jail and mental institutions.
Douglas is lucky to have been able to assemble a cast of genuine Brits so all the accents here are blessedly authentic. That is not to say that all three gentlemen are speaking in their “street voices,” but they are using variations on their natural speech patterns that sound considerably less forced than when Americans attempt them.
La terre* est bleue comme une orange
Jamais une erreur les mots ne mentent pas
The earth is blue like an orange
Never a mistake words do not lie
– Paul Éluard
I was fascinated when I looked up the complete text of this poem that Penhall has not included the second line anywhere in the script of Blue/Orange. I can understand precisely why the character of Robert, an arch manipulator of words, doesn’t quote it, but both lines, possibly the entire poem, must have inspired this play and I think that including them in either the script (available for purchase at the Shakespeare & Company gift shop in the lobby of the Founders’ Theatre) or in the program would be illuminating.
The British mental health system is quite different from ours, as are British attitudes towards race relations, and this play is nothing if not thoroughly, thoroughly British. A two-page glossary of both British slang expressions and mental health terms is provided in the program and I advise you to read them over before the play begins, it will add to your understanding and enjoyment.
Like ...Cuckoo’s Nest, Blue/Orange will most probably leave you railing at a society which leaves its most vulnerable members high and dry with nothing but prescriptions for drugs that do more harm than good and conflicting advice from a squabbling, dysfunctional and overburdened mental health system. It will leave you wondering who needs help more, the doctors or the patients, and what role racial and ethnic misunderstandings play in our muddled attempts help people get back to “normal.”
“We spend our lives asking whether or not this or that person is to be judged normal, a ‘Normal’ person, a ‘Human’, and we blithely assume that we know what ‘Normal’ is. What ‘Human’ is. Maybe [Christopher’s] more ‘Human’ than us. Maybe we’re the sick ones.”
The Shakespeare and Company production of Blue/Orange runs in repertory through September 2 in the Founders' Theatre, 70 Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission and is not for young children. Another R-rating, save this thought-provoking play for adults 17 and up. Call 413-637-3353 for reservations.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007