The Doctor's Dilemma
At the Peabody Playhouse
In The Doctor's Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw takes some roundhouse swings at the medical profession. The Harvard Dramatic Club production of the play makes his blows land where they should--but only occasionally. The truth is that Shaw himself sometimes misses, for this is not one of his most satisfactory plays. It contains the usual quota of talk, and much of it is brilliant. But there are other long stretches when the great Shavian spring of wit runs dry, and the playwright's dislike of doctors appears as little more than a querulous mania. The most unfortunate part of the play, however, is the totally unnecessary last act, which serves only to confuse the problem which the work poses.
That problem concerns a physician's choice of whether to cure a patient or to let him die. The patient, dying of tuberculosis, is a brilliant young artist who is also a detestable human being. The doctor is the discoverer of a miraculously effective cure, which, however, only he knows how to apply. Since his clinic holds only one more available bed, he is forced to decide between healing the artist or another doctor, who is not particularly talented but a good and dedicated man. He ultimately picks the fine man rather than fine art--but that unhappy last act reveals that his real motive seems to be only a love for the artist's wife. Just what the audience should make of that is open to some question.
The best and altogether possible thing for the HDC to do should have been to end the production with the fourth act. This act includes the death of the artist and marks the highpoint of the evening, largely due to the performance of Robert Jordan in the part of the dying Louis Dubedat. Jordan here works at the peak of his form and with his death makes the play come to life. In the earlier parts of the play, he succeeds in showing both the lack of conscience of the man as well as his strange attractiveness, but in the death scene Jordan's acting transforms him into an imposing figure. Jordan dominates this play.
The performance of Philip Harvey as Sir Colenso Ridgeon, the physician, is competent on the whole. He brings to the role the proper amount of dignity, which, however, tends at times to lapse into stiffness. Edith Iselin, who plays the artist's wife, suffers from something of the same trouble. Miss Iselin possesses a quite imposing stage presence, but in this production the emotions which she should be portraying seem swathed in a coating of ice. Her delivery is, if anything, too careful, and she shows too little willingness to vary her rather stately tempo of speaking.
The three principals are surrounded throughout most of the evening by a trio of consulting doctors. One of them, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, ranks among Shaw's most acid-edged portraits. As amusingly acted by James Spiegler, Sir Ralph is a bombastic loudmouth full of saws about the powers of science and blissfully unaware of his tragic incompetence. The second member of the group, portrayed by Peter Hugens, is a butcher of a surgeon who believes that all illnesses may be cured by an operation which he has originated. Hugens shows considerable technical ability in the part. The third man in the trio is an experienced and disillusioned old physician, and the most sympathetic character in the play--or so he seems in the capable hands of Charles Mee. But perhaps the most consistently amusing performance is the contribution of Nancy Curtis, who makes an all too brief appearance as a housekeeper.
If all of these performances fail to be consistently effective, the fault is partly that of the director, Richard Smithies. While inventive enough in his staging, Smithies sometimes lets the pace of the production lag. But then, The Doctor's Dilemma contains some stretches which would strain the abilities of any drama group.