A 1985 book by a neurologist might seem like strange fodder for the stage, but the real individuals described in Oliver Sacks’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” are ripe for theatrical exploration. It is less of a surprise that Sacks’s bestseller became a play created by Peter Brook, one of the greats of modern British theatre, than that his 1993 “The Man Who” is just now making its first appearance in Washington.
The Spooky Action Theater production, directed by founding artistic director Richard Henrich, is both transcendent and disturbing. Henrich has selected four vastly talented and markedly different actors to play all the roles and wisely takes a minimalist approach, placing the focus on their skills.
…this production will take you through an array of emotions, and expose some of the many mysteries of the fragile computers in our heads.
“The Man Who” is a play in only the loosest sense of the term. Like Sachs’s book, it is a series of case studies — 17 here — of hospital patients coping with a range of neurological conditions. In some cases, these are debilitating and tragic, like the story of a woman whose mind tells her she is paralyzed from the neck down even though her body is healthy. Others are perversely uplifting, like the tale of a woman who is able to experience a vivid return to her childhood when certain stimuli are applied to her brain.
The four actors trade roles as patients and doctors in a variety of quick changes. David Gaines, somewhat aloof as a doctor, puts his training as a clown to work in portraying several amiable patients. Gaines has a wonderfully expressive face, and the cheerful but vacant face he creates for a man who is quite happy in his belief that it is still 1990 contrasts with the horror of realization of another patient he plays who is forced to confront evidence of his inability to fully perceive the world.
Eva Wilhelm creates a doctor who is a bit more empathetic than Gaines’s, who is fascinated by her patients both as subjects and as people. She laughs along with them and puts them at ease — and then appears as some of the show’s harder-edged patients, like a woman desperately trying to escape from what she believes to be an unending dream.
Carlos Saldana brings felicity to his characters, most notably a bright and outwardly jovial man with Tourette’s. This vignette cuts to the heart of what is effectively troubling in “The Man Who.” It is hard not to find some amusement in these characters, who so blithely exist in a world both our own and totally alien, and after a near-vaudevillian bit of self-deprecation, Saldana’s patient brusquely turns on Wilhelm’s doctor, savaging her for seeing him as something to be gawked at, not as a suffering human. The line may have been directed to the audience as much as to the doctor.
The strongest scene in the show, and arguably the hardest to watch, comes just before the close. Tuyet Thi Pham is a patient who believes her linguistic impairment has been overcome, and when she discovers that it has not, she rages and laments entirely in monologues of both misused words and nonsense words. The experience is like watching a performance in another language, even though some of the words are familiar. With a near-operatic range of cadences, Pham fully expresses her character’s frustration at her plight. We know what she is saying, even though we do not understand her words.
While this is very much a performers’ piece, Henrich and his artistic team have provided well for the actors. Giorgos Tsappas’s set is a simple platform in shades of gray, with right angles and a vast square window. Just three metal chairs and a rolling table are enough to create an antiseptic hospital environment. The angular stage contrasts nicely with the three arches at the side of the theater space, which the actors also use as part of their playing area. Colin Dieck’s lighting design is effective in taking us from the sterile hospital to the minds of the patients and back again.
There is no real resolution to these 17 short pieces, and as in the case of the Tourette’s patient, we can sometimes feel like we are gazing at these people like trick animals at the circus. But this production will take you through an array of emotions, and expose some of the many mysteries of the fragile computers in our heads. It is well worth the effort.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.
“The Man Who” runs through June 4, 2017, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington. Click here for tickets.