The Public Theater’s ‘The Line’ relays true pandemic stories from New York’s first-responders

As the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the world, and on live theater on and off Broadway, The Public Theater has responded with a virtual world premiere of The Line – an original Zoom docudrama with a vital pandemic theme ripped from the headlines of the past four months. Commissioned by The Public and created in isolation by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, the digital production weaves together interviews the writers conducted remotely with medical first-responders since the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, to present a devastating picture of the toll it has taken on them, their patients, and our underserved minority communities, in a system grossly unprepared for a public health emergency of such unimaginable magnitude.

Alison Pill. Photo by Deb Miller.

Directed with increasing intensity by Blank, the outstanding cast of Santino Fontana (David), Arjun Gupta (Vikram), John Ortiz (Oscar), Alison Pill (Jennifer), Nicholas Pinnock (Dwight), Jamey Sheridan (Ed), and Lorraine Toussaint (Sharon) relays the profoundly affecting words and complex emotions of the actual people (whose names have been changed in the script to protect their anonymity, thereby allowing them to speak more freely) who have been risking their lives to save others. Yet, despite their selfless commitment and sacrifice (the realistic marks and abrasions on the face of Pill’s Jennifer, left by the protective masks she must wear during her long hours of treating patients, are especially jarring and telling), they remain humble, are generally uncomfortable with being called heroes, and do not hesitate to point out the heroism of the essential workers outside of the medical field, who have also continued to do their everyday jobs and to provide necessary services to their fellow New Yorkers.

Performing from home in their separate Zoom boxes, the actors alternate in conveying the backstories of their real-life characters – where they came from and how they first began their medical careers (in a variety of occupations from ambulance driver to doctor), the background of their growing awareness of the coronavirus, and the shocking realization of its uncontrolled spread throughout the world and into the US. All deliver an authentic accent (from Queens to Trinidad), a distinctive personality, and a sincere expression of the ethical standards that drive them, while painting an indelible image of their collective experience and shared vulnerability.

Lorraine Toussaint, Santino Fontana, and John Ortiz. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater.

The harrowing firsthand accounts of the horrific symptoms, institutional chaos, and personal panic over the dangers of exposure and the skyrocketing infections and death count, not knowing how to treat the virus or who would get it, and the decisions made in their over-extended facilities of who should live and who should die, are brimming with pain and reflection. They make us feel their frustration, fear, despondency, and anger, along with their heartbreak, compassion, and humanitarian concern for the victims and the surviving members of their families, who couldn’t say goodbye or give their loved ones a proper funeral, and for the socio-economic inequities based on class and race, laid bare by the contagion. A segment of TV news footage of the pandemic and other recent events, backed by an original expressive song by Aimee Mann, follows the performance and sets the context of the true stories for posterity.

If you want to explore one of the most pressing issues of our present time, enacted by a first-rate fully empathetic cast, you can stream The Line for free, courtesy of The Public. While the impactful content is highly disturbing and heartrending to be sure (especially for those of us who have lost family, friends, and colleagues to COVID-19), it is also reassuring and inspiring to know that there are healthcare professionals who embody the meaning of altruism and the tenets of the Hippocratic Oath, who have dedicated themselves to the well-being of others and to society at large, and who are brave enough to disclose the systemic flaws and racial inequality they witnessed. To learn more and to make a much-needed voluntary donation to organizations supporting frontline healthcare workers, please visit Physician Affiliate Group of New York and Public Health Solutions.

Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.

The Line  streams through Tuesday, August 4, 11:59 pm, on The Public Theater’s website and YouTube channel.


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