As audience members enter the Spotlighters Theatre to attend the Baltimore Playwrights Festival’s world premiere of Glennyce Lynn’s Consent, they pass signs warning against medical contamination, as well as newspapers reporting social and environmental collapse in the world of the near future, before arriving at the hospital room of Patient 37 (Brandon Richards), who is breathing on a ventilator. His gasps continue disconcertingly throughout the pre-show address by Executive Producer Fuzz Roark, as if to suggest that our society, too, is on life support, unconscious of the suffering that is happening all around us.
Mr. 37 is revealed to be a “volunteer” in a medical program called the Algernon Project, which is acknowledged to be named for Daniel Keyes’ landmark sci-fi novella Flowers for Algernon, about an experiment intended to improve human life that yielded only temporary success. That any study would admit to this as its inspiration is sick enough, but it turns out to be worse yet: the true model is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which depicts the use of living people as organ farms for harvesting, in this case after all other options have been closed to them. And though 37 is assured that he can leave the project at any time, we may recall that the same promise was made to the participants in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The two doctors overseeing 37’s case seem to fall into the classic good doc / bad doc mold, though we soon question which is which. Dani (McKinley Wallace III) enters on a wave of indignant profanity, and his subsequent behavior reinforces that he is unguardedly emotional in a setting that strongly discourages such displays. But lest we warm to him as the tender heart in this experiment, he’s repeatedly shown to be as bad as anyone he curses, callously inconsiderate of the consequences of his actions and appallingly incompetent at just about anything he attempts – a lethal cocktail in a job where life and death are on the line.
Gert (Tina James), on the other hand, appears to be a paragon of professionalism, albeit an annoying pedant as well. But there’s something off about her, whether she’s waxing a bit too sentimental about Flowers for Algernon or displaying a troublingly sadistic sense of humor. Ultimately, she does in fact commit a shocking act of betrayal, which would be even more shocking if it weren’t lifted from Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman.
Compelling as these characters are, one has to wonder why two doctors are needed to attend 37, especially since, as directed by G. Andre Tittle, they spend so little time on his physical care. It seems like overkill, which indeed is the playwright’s consistent strategy. Is it really necessary, for instance, to have Gert recite the Hippocratic Oath in its entirety, long after we get the point of her hypocrisy? And how likely is it, particularly in a world evidently begging for physicians, that a doctor who touches a patient in anything but a medically authorized manner would receive a physical chastisement that handicaps him from fulfilling his duties, as Dani does here?
Lynn doubles down on every questionable idea, however, often with disarming success. Dani’s quite literally heavy-handed punishment is further pounded home by an Orwellian voice over the intercom, declaring, “Retribution must be paid!” We soon recognize this as a cruel parody of the eulogy for Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.” And like that failed everyman, poor 37 will not be getting attention, much less retribution; indeed, it’s not really about him at all, but is merely a warning to his doctors not to relate to him as a person, thereby jeopardizing the experiment, which depends on denying his humanity – and their own.
Ironically, the most touchingly human acting in this production comes from the disembodied voices of Rodney Bonds and Sharon Weaver as 37’s parents, racked with guilt over the sacrifices he has made for them, even as they can only ask him to continue to do so. For all its ailments, this show is a striking reminder of how often we expect so many people to give more than their share to keep our society going, and how we may be ripping our own hearts out in the process.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.