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STAGE REVIEW : Subject Propels 'Miss Evers' Boys'

July 20, 1990|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER WRITER

From a certain point of view, American history is a history of scandal. In the lineup: the wresting of the West from American Indians, and the genocide, slavery, broken promises and exploitation of any number of other ethnic or economic minorities--from Chinese railroad workers to incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II and the struggle of Okies and undocumented Mexicans in the California fields.

Too often, the civil rights record has been dismaying cases of inequality in the home of the brave and the land of the free. One such is what drives David Feldshuh's "Miss Evers' Boys," which opened Thursday at the Mark Taper Forum.

The outrage here was sparked by the Tuskegee Study of Syphilis in the Untreated Negro Male (1932-72), one of the longest medical surveys ever, wherein impoverished syphilitic black men in Alabama's Macon County were led to believe they were receiving treatment for their "bad blood." Instead, without their knowledge or consent, they were expendably used in flawed scientific research and left unmedicated well after penicillin had become common treatment for the disease.

In the unraveling scandal, 400 black men with syphilis were given such placebos as government certificates of commendation and allowed to die--sacrificed to "end point," meaning autopsy.

Playwright Feldshuh, a theater man and medical doctor, has fictionalized the situation but not the circumstances. He has reduced the 400 to an emblematic four and the doctors involved down to two: a white Dr. John Douglas (Charles Lanyer) and a black Dr. Eugene Brodus (Bennet Guillory). The nurse who cares for these men is Eunice Evers (Starletta DuPois), a character modeled after real-life nurse Eunice Rivers, a black woman who participated in the study, though herself somewhat ambiguously misled into believing in its moral propriety.

The result is an evocative, issue-driven play, that suffers from a slight case of righteousness (always the danger), but written with enough dexterity to eschew some, if not all, of the pitfalls of docudrama. (We still get the projections that tell you when and where you are--including one that reads Act Two.) There are no surprises in the plot and only circumstantial character development.

The amiable Hodman (Mel Winkler), innocent Willie (K. Todd Freeman), kindly Ben (John Cothran, Jr.) and fierce Caleb (Carl Lumbly) are representational victims with minimal lives of their own. We hear about wives, children and "obligations" but do not see or feel any. Feldshuh links these men by a joint desire to shine as a rustic musical group, of which the ardent Willie is the dancer. This serves to unite them behind a common goal and, in Willie's case particularly, to illustrate the ravages of the disease.

A smart move on Feldshuh's part, but also a transparent one, which defuses and diffuses the play, since we know from the start where all this is taking us.

The Taper staging does little to alter that. It is well and movingly acted, but directed with too much predictability by Irene Lewis (who previously staged this play at Baltimore's Center Stage) on an uncluttered, evocative set by Douglas Stein, hauntingly lit by Pat Collins.

The only room for discussion is in the morally murky role played by nurse Evers. Here Feldshuh chooses to give the character great latitude. We see some of the woman's moral dilemma, but often want to light a fire under it, since she knows she is living a lie and acts--or fails to--out of misplaced loyalty to a profession rather than to endangered men she loves.

This is not impossible (indeed, it is largely what happened with the real nurse Rivers), but it is dramatically unconvincing, perhaps because the play has so greatly personalized her relationship to her patients. These are upstanding men shortchanged by life, willing game players whose betrayal seems all the more unconscionable for having been perpetrated on such decent guys. A scene in which Caleb is subjected to a spinal tap has an almost unbearable emotional veracity. But in another sense, it is dramatic counterfeit that plays on raw response. Plays need more valid foundations than these.

In fairness to Feldshuh, though, he does not overdo such situations and does provide the play with more than carboard characters in the service of an idea. There is a minor but believable love interest between Caleb and Eunice; a tender exchange between the illiterate Ben and Eunice, who teaches him to write his name; and a horrifying scene of mental disintegration when the ranting Hodman ingests a lethal dose of turpentine after more basic voodoo has failed him.

The ghostly "Chorus Line-ish" closing image, briefly lifts this play out of its didactic realm. But even when it touches us--and it does--"Miss Evers' Boys" is an indignant look at righteous cause for indignation. If these two plusses don't quite add up to a minus, they do rob the drama of an ironic edge.

At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30. Ends Sept. 2. $22-$28; (213) 410-1062, (714) 634-1300, or TDD (213) 680-4017).

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