Despite the fact that it was written 106 years ago, The Doctor’s Dilemma is, in many ways, an immensely modern play. It deals with complex themes and relationships, but at the same time is enjoyable because of its wit and grandiose characters. Like the typical George Bernard Shaw work, The Doctor’s Dilemma is a fun and quotable comedy as well as a deep meditation on morality and human nature.
Director Dámaso Rodriguez’s interpretation of The Doctor’s Dilemma remains fairly traditional, which is the exact approach the material needs. This is partially because the play is about myriad issues that arose in technology and medicine when Shaw was writing in the early 20th century. The focus of the play shifts suddenly at the end of the first act, however, as the play fixates more on the moral dilemma the characters will wrestle with throughout the rest of the play: Is the life of a great artist or that of a decent man’s more valuable, and is it even a doctor’s place to judge such things?
The Doctor’s Dilemma follows each member of a group of doctors as they seek to answer these questions. Each character comes with his own peculiarities, and each represents a very specific way of thinking. For this reason, the play succeeds because of the actors’ portrayals of these characters; almost every actor is compelling and hilarious and contributes, therefore, to the play’s success.
Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Geoff Elliott), the central figure of the play, is the most logical, intelligent and talented of the doctors — or at least, that’s how he seems at first. The play slowly reveals, however, that Ridgeon is a much more selfish man than he initially appears. Elliott is extremely believable in the role and is interestingly able to develop his character without ever outwardly appearing any different or seeming any less rational.
The other doctors represent very specific points of view. Apollo Dukakis portrays the old and cynical — but wise — Sir Patrick Cullen, who is extremely skeptical of modernity. Freddy Douglas plays Cutler Walpole, a man of style who performs useless operations on people who have surgery because it is in style. His character provokes laughter every time he suggests blood poisoning as a potential diagnosis for maladies of any kind.
Dr. Blenkinsop (David LM McIntyre) is the only doctor who is not wealthy and socially acknowledged, perhaps because he is the least remarkable of any of the men, although he is certainly the most decent. McIntyre’s performance here is probably the most realistic and down to earth of any of them, as the actor embodies a sort of quiet dignity.
Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Robertson Dean), or B.B. for short, is one of the most interesting characters and performances in the piece. He is the most foolish, absent-minded and misguided of the doctors, yet he is also the most compassionate and morally courageous. Dean remains enormously funny in his character’s ramblings, but as the play progresses, B.B. becomes perhaps the most moral character: Despite his foolishness, Dean’s portrayal of B.B. becomes more vulnerable and emotional.
These doctors take it upon themselves to decide whether Louis Dubedat (Jason Dechert), a great artist, deserves to replace one of the 10 people Ridgeon can treat for tuberculosis. The fact that Dubedat is a great talent and both he and his wife, Jennifer (Jules Willcox), are hugely charming and likeable are the only reasons Ridgeon takes time out of what he claims is a busy schedule to consider saving him. The fact that he might not be the most moral, however, seems to complicate the matter. Dubedat himself says at one point, “I don’t believe in morality. I’m a disciple of Bernard Shaw.”
Dubedat’s dynamic with the other characters both intrigues and impresses. Together, Dechert and Willcox make an exciting pair, but when Dechert is with the other actors, he remains active, while they seem static.
Dubedat creates art while the doctors sit and judge him. In fact, audiences never see any of the other doctors do anything but talk about being busy. They claim to be overworked and that they do “the work of 10 men,” but audiences never actually see the characters treat any patients, do any research or perform any surgeries: they only talk about doing these things.
Dechert’s portrayal of Dubedat, on the other hand, is one filled with vitality and charisma. Despite his disease, Dubedat remains passionate and lively, constantly moving around the set while other characters stay put.
The production is a clever one. Never once does it break out of the world it has created. Even between acts, all the set movers dress in period costumes as if they are servants, and a couple of them even remain in the scenes as minor characters. For this reason, the changes between scenes are much more fluid and interesting than they otherwise might have been.
But, even with these more subtle achievements, The Doctor’s Dilemma succeeds overall because of its larger themes of life and death. The skeleton is the only element of the set that changes locations: It moves from Ridgeon’s consulting room, where it is a clinical scientific artifact and therefore something to study objectively, to Dubedat’s artist studio, where it becomes something much more dramatic and evocative.
This switch mirrors the two character’s relationships with death. For Ridgeon, death is an occupational certainty, something he deals with everyday; it is banal and serves merely as a means to an end. For Dubedat, however, death is romantic and transcendent, full of meaning and passion. He will live on through his art after his death, and is therefore unafraid.
With its complex nature, The Doctor’s Dilemma captivates viewers with its questions of morality. By the time viewers digest the play’s ideas, they might find themselves questioning their own beliefs on the role of medicine and the moral ambiguity behind finding the worth of a human life.