Who gets to define what is “normal?” That question, as current as today’s headlines, is a perennial one in literature and is one of the themes addressed by a new Portland theater company’s inaugural production.
The fledgling Dramatic Repertory Company is presenting the Maine premiere of “Blue/Orange,” an award-winning play from 2000 by the British playwright Joe Penhall.
The play, directed by Keith Powell Beyland, concerns the deliberations, often less scientific than political, less sensitive than self-serving, that go on between two psychiatrists as they try to determine whether a young male patient should be released from their facility.
This is a dialogue-heavy work and one may hear the same point made several ways during its two-hour duration. Thursday’s performance seemed to get a little flat in the middle.
But the work has power as it reveals how institutional needs, ethnic stereotypes, careerist excesses and professional rivalries can so cloud decision-making that it becomes difficult for anyone to actually see the patient before them.
Kevin O. Peterson plays the patient Chris as a jittery lost soul who fabricates unlikely life stories with just enough delusional skill to make them almost believable. He delivers some of the play’s edgiest and funniest lines, throwing off sparks of sarcasm and derision but never quite being able to benefit from the verbal advantage he’s temporarily gained.
The initial earnestness of the younger shrink, Bruce, played by Evan Dalzell, gives way to a tougher resolve as his diagnosis is challenged by the elder doctor, Robert, played as a bow-tied academic wannabe by Pope Brock. Bruce’s tenacious overconfidence rings true for young professionals most folks have known, as does the cutting smugness of the experienced Robert.
Quoting the eccentric psychiatrist R.D. Laing as well as some exotic poetry, Brock’s Robert is a guy who’s not used to being told he’s wrong. When his colleague pleads to extend Chris’s stay for further diagnosis and treatment, he calmly concocts semantic and institutional countermeasures like a seasoned political warrior.
The play’s relevance to contemporary issues such as the impact of political and social attitudes on resolving scientific questions is certainly unmistakable. Audiences may long for a tidier resolution but, like much in today’s world, it may just come down to who gets the final say.
This new company is one that seems inclined toward offering substantial work that should challenge audiences and give them much to think about.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.