"Doctor's Dilemma" at the Shaw Festival
by Anthony Chase
It’s worth reminding ourselves that one of the great things about Buffalo is Canada. The sights and activities of Southern Ontario are within easy proximity to our city, and none is more worthwhile than the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, planetary center for the plays of George Bernard Shaw “and playwrights writing anywhere in the world during, or about, the era of his lifetime,” 1856-1950.
While the summer is winding down, the Shaw remains in full swing, with most productions continuing through October and their popular production of Mary Chase’s Harvey (about Elwood Dowd and his imaginary giant rabbit friend) continuing well into November. In fact, with the region’s tender fruits now coming into season and the peak tourist season behind us, the fall is an excellent time to head up to the Shaw where 10 plays are offered at four theaters.
Each season features productions of plays by Shaw himself, and this year it’s John Bull’s Other Island and The Doctor’s Dilemma.
I have happy memories of the 1991 production of The Doctor’s Dilemma starring Michael Ball as Dr. Ridgeon, Steven Sutcliffe as Louis Dubedat, and Barry MacGregor as Cutler Walpole, and so I was particularly interested to see its current incarnation, in which Ball plays Sir Patrick.
Many commentators become lost in the issues of medical ethics that Shaw manipulates so playfully in this 1906 play, now running on the main stage. At its heart, however, The Doctor’s Dilemma is less concerned with medical ethics than it is with a man who allows his attraction to a woman to cloud his moral judgment, and whose social status allows him to take moral liberties.
Sir Colenso Ridgeon has discovered a treatment for tuberculosis. We meet him on the very day when it is announced that he is to be knighted. He is at the top of his profession, and all is well in his world.
Disrupting the equilibrium of this happy state is the arrival, not of a patient exactly, or even the announcement of a diagnosis, but a visit from a woman.
“There’s a lady bothering me to see the doctor,” complains Emmy, Ridgeon’s downtrodden housekeeper, in the opening line of the play.
And what a lady she is!
Jennifer Dubedat is captivating and charismatic—the beautiful and eminently appealing wife of a gifted young artist. The character was one of Katharine Cornell’s signature roles. She was portrayed by deliciously appealing Leslie Caron on film. So popular was the original 1906 London portrayal by Lillah McCarthy (who recreated her performance in New York in 1915) that the name “Jennifer,” unusual in those days, catapulted into popularity.
Ridgeon comments that “Jennifer” is “a strange name.”
“Not in Cornwall,” she assures him. “I am Cornish. It’s only what you call Guinevere.”
Indeed, this is an exceptional woman in every way, and this Lancelot is smitten, though the lady has a husband already.
Mrs. Dubedat is not paying a social call. She has come because her husband is dying of tuberculosis, and she knows Ridgeon to be the only physician capable of curing him. The difficulty is that his practice has reached its full capacity. He can save 10 patients and no more. If he saves Mrs. Dubedat’s husband, he must let another man die.
On the surface, this is the good doctor’s dilemma, but only on the surface. The real dilemma is that he has fallen in love with another man’s wife.
The current production, directed by Morris Panych, is lusciously grand with expressionistic elements whimsically inserted into a stylized set by Ken MacDonald. The curtain at the Festival Theatre rises to the appreciative gasps one comes to expect at the Shaw Festival—where design, as much as acting, is king.
Gigantic framed x-rays are suspended along the full height of the proscenium to represent Ridgeon’s office. The giant paisley art nouveau swirls of the ornately framed painting at the Star and Garden restaurant of Act II are, the program reveals, magnified images of the tuberculosis bacteria; which I concur, resemble a pink Fauve reinterpretation of van Gogh’s Starry Night. The molding above Dubedat’s studio is actually a colossal paintbrush. Each of these stage pictures is handsomely lit by Alan Brodie, and signals to the audience that this is Shaw at the Shaw Festival—a momentous play, brimming with big ideas.
As in the case of the King Arthur’s Round Table, “big ideas” often get torpedoed by the petty desires of mortal men, and when those men have the social status of knights, they are empowered to take moral liberties. That is the point of this play.
Patrick Galligan is well cast as Ridgeon, a man whose silver hair discloses a maturity that exceeds his energy and youthful good looks. He cheerfully navigates his way through his moral dilemmas, making life and death choices as if they were entrees on a menu. He is intellectually superior, but morally speaking, this god of privilege has feet of clay.
Krista Colosimo makes a delightful and captivating Jennifer Dubedat. We believe that every man in the vicinity would gravitate toward her.
I liked Miss Colosimo so much that I hesitate to mention that there is a moment when her performance, for me, suffers a debilitating stumble. Upon learning that Ridgeon plans to turn her husband’s case over to his colleague, Sir Ralph—a choice that will result in the young man’s death—she turns on Ridgeon like a badger. It is a startling outburst and seems inconsistent with a woman who is totally and entirely characterized by her vivacious charm, and her limitless and unrelenting patience. This Guinevere never falters. Moreover, this premature explosion of animosity undercuts a moment at the end of the play when she is actually called upon to snap at an amazed and unprepared Ridgeon. When that critical moment finally comes, we have already seen her ugly temper, which now comes as no surprise. Jennifer can be indignant. She can be desperate. She can be persistent and insistent. But we need to believe that this woman is totally and entirely oblivious to her husband’s wanton ways. After that momentary explosion of unbridled viciousness, I saw duplicity in everything she said, and her sweetness seemed manipulative and fake.
I greatly admired the performance of Michael Ball as Sir Patrick Cullen, Ridgeon’s friend and conscience, and the voice of reason in the play. A model of ethics, medical and otherwise, he serves as a moral anchor in the world of the play. “You must choose as if [the wife] didn’t exist,” he warns Ridgeon. Ball plays Sir Patrick with steadiness and good humor, and among the play’s many dense speeches, those spoken by Ball resonate with the greatest clarity.
A cadre of comical lesser physicians is played by Thom Marriott as Sir Ralph Bonington, a society doctor; Patrick McManus as Mr. Cutler Walpole, the scalpel-happy surgeon; Jonathan Widdifield as mercenary Dr. Leo Schutzmacher; Rick Reid as impoverished but honest Dr. Blenkinsop. This crew carries the weight of Shaw’s heavier medical repartee and does so with divine comical lightness.
Jonathan Gould is infinitely appealing and marvelously funny as odious Louis Dubedat, Jennifer’s arguably sociopathic husband. This gifted artist matches his wife for charm, but where she is without guile, he is slyness personified, a born con artist. The doctor’s dilemma is already in place before he meets Louis, but the young man’s amoral ways conveniently makes the pursuit of pleasure a duty for the physician. Gould’s performance happily greases the wheels.
Charlotte Dean’s period costumes are exquisite and perfect and speak volumes about the characters.
While I have often read that Ridgeon’s dilemma is that he does not have enough medicine for an additional patient—a misconception probably passed on from website to website—this is not so. In fact, Sir Ralph gives Louis the very medicine that Ridgeon uses to save lives, but it kills him. Ridgeon shares the medicine, but not the knowledge of how to use it properly—at least not with anyone who will listen. This knowing lapse justifies Ridgeon’s confession that he has killed Louis—and for nothing. His selfish scheme, enabled by a society that gives physicians the status of gods, fails to yield the desired result. The anachronistic and mocking musical choice of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want!” delivers the message home as the play comes to a close.
As always, a trip to the Shaw Festival is a joyful and momentous event. There is no more gracious and appealing place to see a play, no matter who the author. Moreover, collecting a memory of this great play allows one to be prepared the next time the festival mounts a production of the same work, which they are sure to do.
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