The plague years

Rosanne Rosanna Danna was right. It's always something.
Take paranoia. Just when we've learned to stop worrying about the Bomb, the Bug crops up to give us the collective willies. Mushroom clouds have been supplanted by super viruses as the peril du jour--a peril that threatens to spread across the human population like scum over a stagnant pond, according to various voices of doom.

It wouldn't be the first time a nasty disease got the upper hand on humankind, of course. In 1665, London was decimated by one of the many plagues that have swept over Europe. That particular outbreak killed more than 100,000 people, a hefty chunk of the city's population.

Could the gruesome experiences of Restoration Londoners hold any lessons for us today?

That's the question probed by Anthony Clarvoe in his instructional play The Living. It's served up as a cautionary tale, resonant with contemporary political and moral overtones, in somewhat the same way Arthur Miller made the Salem Witch Trials a meditation on 1950s McCarthyism in The Crucible.

As The Living points out, people three centuries ago were no better at handling the ramifications of a virulent, implacable disease than we are today. For example, large segments of London's population were stigmatized by their inability to obtain state-authorized "certificates of health," which mostly went to those with money or influence. "Searchers of the dead" were accordingly bribed for their compliance in reporting deaths to be caused by smallpox, scarlet fever or any disease more politically correct than bubonic plague.

In fact, the whole city of London was trapped in denial, Clarvoe maintains. According to the play's narrator, who styles himself the world's first statistician-epidemiologist, denial was one of the main abettors of the disease. At the outset, the stricken and their relatives were euphemistically reported to have "fallen ill." The authorities bought into this obfuscation because they didn't want to deal with the consequences of a full-blown plague. By the time they faced the facts, it was too late--London was a goner.

Naturally, the greatest burden fell on the poor. The rich escaped to their country retreats, where the air was a little purer, to contemplate the fate of the masses in relative equanimity. From the safety of the countryside, the King's court justified not footing the bill for more health care based on the need for greater defense spending.

At one point in the play, the overtaxed Lord Mayor of London, whose job it was to keep things together, is assured by a court dandy that the plight of the poor will be "made known" to the proper authorities. In one of the more telling lines of the play, the mayor replies, "make it felt."

Unfortunately, it is in the area of feelings where The Living falls short. The historical references--such as the attribution of a familiar safe sex device to a "Dr. Condom"--are interesting or mildly amusing, but they don't grab you emotionally.

It's not the fault of the cast or of director Robyne Gulledge. The Living is effectively staged by the Gryphon Players in the stark, cavern-like Hickory Street Annex. The large stage is unadorned, except for a rough-hewn writing table topped by a quill pen and a set of black stairs leading nowhere. At the back of the stage, a wall of yellowish gauze stretches between two large, open loading doors, revealing a recumbent, draped corpse. The black walls and sepulchral feel of the theater reinforce the play's gloomy theme.

The Restoration costuming is also on target, especially the flowing, curly perukes worn by the men and the weird, bird-like masks of the physicians. Meant to act as air filters, these macabre masks underline the inability of the medical profession to either deduce the causes of the plague or deal with its symptoms.

The play is held together by several strong performances, particularly that of Dennis Millegan as the mayor, a man with a conscience who nevertheless must develop a "MHAHSHH" doctor's detachment to suffering in order to be effective. Melanie Stroh is engaging as a merchant's wife who loses her entire family to the plague. Sympathetic without being maudlin, she is seen at the end of the play contemplating the peculiar fact that "I'm the last person I know."

Walter Marvin Demetrius Hardts plays a minister whose role it is to question God's motivation in allowing the calamitous plague. He construes it as the Lord's judgment on the nation as a whole, since the disease strikes the righteous and profane alike. But the minister never identifies what the nation has done to deserve its scourge and, while spoken with conviction by Hardts, the character's lofty declarations never come to a philosophical point.

H. Frances Fuselier's narrator-statistician views the plague as a Rubic's cube that he is trying to master. A kind of Restoration computer nerd, he examines statistics from parish "rolls of the dead" to see if any pattern emerges. His conclusion that the plague originates in dirty, overcrowded slums and spreads from there is a bit underwhelming. Likably played by Fuselier, the statistician is responsible for the few touches of humor in the play, which are mostly of the archly anachronistic kind, as when he refers to Isaac Newton as a "promising boy" who "teaches math at Cambridge."

The central problem with The Living is that it doesn't give you anyone to care about. It is difficult to come to terms with wholesale suffering in the abstract, which is why an Anne Frank elicits far more pity than does a recitation of statistics about the Holocaust. There is no one to identify with here, which leaves the play with the bloodless air of an academic exercise in historical comparisons. The best and the worst thing that can be said about The Living is that it is earnest and edifying.

As the grizzled old Hollywood producer said, "Ya wanna send a message? Call Western Union."

The Living plays through September 30 at the Hickory Street Annex. Call 526-1158.

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P.b. Miller