"Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" is the fundamental question posed by the central character in Brian Clark's drama about the ethical and legal implications of suicide in response to hopeless physical impairment (in this case, paralysis below the neck).
"I can't accept that this condition constitutes life in any real sense of the word," declares the paralyzed sculptor who wages a legal battle to be released from the hospital, even though release from life-support systems means certain death. Standing in the way is the immense body of medical ethics and protocol that dictate preservation of life at any cost.
Though Clark originally wrote the piece for a male lead, he quickly revised it for a woman when Mary Tyler Moore took over the role in the original Broadway run (the Santa Barbara City College Theatre Group production uses the second version).
That ought to tell you something. When the problems and conflicts posed by a dramatic work can undergo an easy sex change, the focus is obviously more on the issue than on the characters involved.
This isn't necessarily bad--Arthur Miller constructed all his plays with a moral question as his starting point. But his issues were grounded in his characters' specific human circumstances. It would be unthinkable to cast a woman as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" or as John Proctor in "The Crucible" because their characters embrace unique elements of the real-world male experience.
Clark is certainly no Arthur Miller, and his script barely makes it past the issue formulation--it's an argument first and a play second. In its best moments, it gives us a character facing a living nightmare with incredible courage and outrageous humor. There's a heartbreaking monologue where she talks about breaking up with the lover who wanted to take care of her, because she couldn't bear the guilt of knowing she was keeping him from a full life.
Still, there's an ever-present sense that we're only being shown enough of a personal dimension to enlist our sympathy and further the argument. The play even culminates with a legal hearing convened in the hospital room, where the sculptor makes a compelling plea to be released, backing up her request with skillful reasoning, and the other characters each voice their opinions based on the ideology they represent.
But the theater is not "This Week With David Brinkley." The challenge facing director Pope Freeman and his cast is to transform that argument into a complete experience. And Cali Rae Turner as the crippled Claire gives us a textbook case of overcoming script limitations through performance.
It's quite an accomplishment. Surmounting the additional obstacle of carrying the role without body movement, Turner's Claire is a charming, quick-witted, and above all, life-loving woman reacting to her circumstances in a fully conscious and self-determined way. And with a good deal of humor ("I don't know how to take that--well, lying down I suppose").
What could have been a ponderous descent into gloom becomes an upbeat, often hilarious experience despite its serious overtones. Clark has written some wonderful dialogue for Claire, and Turner makes the most of it.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for her nemesis, the straight-arrow head of the hospital (Stephen Farrell), who fights to keep her alive against her will. The name of the game in dramatic conflict is "What's at stake?" and while for Claire losing the hearing means a life sentence in hell, the doctor has nothing on the line except his sense of proper protocol.
This character has been written without a shred of personal involvement in the outcome.
And when a duel becomes a cakewalk for someone who can't even move, we know we're in trouble.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" will be performed tonight through Saturday at Santa Barbara City College Studio Theatre at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. For reservations or further information, call 965-5935.