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A life on the line in 'Blue/Orange'

Two psychiatrists engage in combat over a hospitalized mental patient's future. The results are sobering and suspenseful at the Old Globe Theatre.

September 27, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — At first glance, "Blue/Orange" looks like one of those argumentative plays such as "Art," which also has a cast of three men. But the stakes in "Blue/Orange," at the Old Globe Theatre, are considerably higher.

A man's life is on the line.

He's a mental patient named Christopher (Teagle F. Bougere). His young psychiatrist (Brian Hutchison), who's still in training at a British National Health Service hospital, and the doctor's older supervisor (Ned Schmidtke) enter combat over Christopher's future.

One of them wants to return Christopher to his community as soon as possible, under a psychiatric nurse's supervision. He contends that continued hospitalization might be not only detrimental to Christopher but also symptomatic of the white establishment's ethnocentricity against a patient of African heritage.

The other doctor thinks Christopher probably is paranoid schizophrenic and that his release will endanger him.

Many a scenarist would have assigned the free-Christopher role to the younger doctor and the by-the-book role to his mentor. But Joe Penhall flips those expectations.

The younger doctor, known only as Bruce, doesn't believe Christopher's claim that he is one of Idi Amin's many children. He points out that Christopher hears voices conspiring against him. He wonders why Christopher insists on saying that the oranges in a bowl in the consultation room are blue.

Robert, the older doctor, shrugs off this supposed evidence of schizophrenia as a harmless indication of cultural differences. He construes even the paranoia and the voices as predictable responses to the oppression Christopher faces in the outside world.

Besides, Robert points out, there are no beds left for Christopher.

Here is where Robert's liberal talk conveniently dovetails with harsh reality. Besides these economic reasons for wanting to discharge Christopher, Robert has his own careerist reasons -- he's writing a book about the cultural biases inherent within psychiatric diagnoses. He believes he has discovered a new way to treat black psychiatric patients.

Bruce isn't completely free of political gamesmanship. As their argument over Christopher gets hot and heavy, both men begin to take mental notes on each other's turns of phrase that might somehow be used against them. And each of them makes enough questionable little remarks -- often in jest -- to provide the other with ammunition in the inquiries that may follow.

Christopher, who initially was looking forward to his imminent release, changes his mind more than once as he is batted back and forth between his two doctors' opinions. The shifting winds feed his own feelings that someone out there is trying to take over his personality.

Penhall has constructed an exciting, if ultimately sobering, roundelay, with both intellectual and emotional punch. Credibility falters twice, however, when Bruce delays the revelation of two pieces of evidence for his side, for reasons that can't be explained except as devices to heighten the play's suspense.

The play is ideal for the under-the-microscope intimacy of the Old Globe's arena-style Cassius Carter Centre Stage. And except for a few blocked sight lines, director Richard Seer manages the space effectively and builds the pacing masterfully.

Hutchison is superb as the young doctor who finds his hothead side clashing with his professional obligation to remain calm and reasonable. But Schmidtke is one degree too oily as Robert. Bougere masterfully milks Christopher's unpredictability, and his passionate glances remind us of the stakes.



Where: Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays 2 p.m.

Ends: Oct. 26

Price: $19-$52

Contact: (619) 239-2255

Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Teagle F. Bougere...Christopher

Brian Hutchison...Bruce

Ned Schmidtke...Robert

Written by Joe Penhall. Directed by Richard Seer. Set by Robin Sanford Roberts. Costumes by Charlotte Devaux. Lighting by Chris Rynne. Sound by Paul Peterson. Stage manager Lisa Porter.

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