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When a director places two chairs and three characters on a stage, he’s more or less declaring an interest in instability. Someone will forever, at least metaphorically, be up in the air.
So even if you don’t know that Joe Penhall’s drama Blue/Orange is set in a mental institution, you’ll gather pretty quickly that the play is going to center on an odd man out. But which one? The evening begins with Christopher (Cedric Mays), a jumpy Afro-Brit patient perched atop a chair in a Karate Kid attack pose as he grins at his seemingly unflappable doctor. Christopher was remanded to a psychiatric institution for 28 days of observation, and this is Day 27. He’s bouncing off the walls at the prospect of getting out. But first he needs to get through an exit interview with his compassionate young doctor, Dr. Bruce Flaherty (Aubrey Deeker), who has invited his own mentor and supervisor, Dr. Robert Smith (Michael Tolaydo) to sit in.
What quickly becomes evident is that Bruce doesn’t think his patient should be released. The official diagnosis of a “borderline personality disorder” strikes him as inadequate, but he needs more time to confirm that Chris is actually psychotic. Robert, a garrulous, poetry-quoting old coot, argues for release, noting that Chris has made progress during his stay and, not incidentally, that he is taking up a bed that could go to another patient.
As the title suggests, color matters in their diagnoses—both the color of oranges, which Chris rather disconcertingly sees as a luminous blue, and also the color of Chris himself. Robert wonders aloud whether cultural differences might account for the behavior of their black patient, an ethnocentric approach to psychiatry that Bruce sneers at as colonialist. But the younger doctor doesn’t really have a comeback to his mentor’s assertion that there is “more mental illness in the African-Caribbean population in London than in any other group.” When this patient refers to skinheads as “zombies,” and talks of a coming move to Africa, and claims to have been fathered by Idi Amin, might these all be easily explained defense mechanisms, rather than paranoid delusions?
Bruce doesn’t think so. And he has questions of his own. Robert keeps urging that his subordinate “play the game” by processing patients quickly through the facility before they can become permanent wards of the state. Releasing Chris could be dangerous, argues Bruce; keeping him institutionalized could make him ill, responds Robert. Deeker makes the young doctor earnest and impassioned while Tolaydo brings a practiced, seedy charm to the elder’s pontificating.
Each doctor, it turns out, has an agenda, as of course, does Chris, though he’s treated as little more than a pawn in the battle of wills being waged around him—a protected pawn in the evening’s bristling Act 1, a cravenly manipulated pawn in the less persuasive scenes after intermission. Part of the problem is that playwright Penhall ends up so overstating the doctors’ sparring that it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see a third doctor arrive and send all three characters off to individual padded cells.
No one likes the notion of locking people away in mental institutions, of course, but while Blue/Orange is structured to make Robert’s arguments for releasing Chris initially persuasive—indeed the play’s early tension depends on our feeling that Bruce is being overcautious—there’s really not a moment in Theater Alliance’s production in which you think Chris is ready to walk out the door. Mays is playing Chris as edgy and jumpy, not psychotic, but erring on the side of caution seems entirely rational, and Robert’s wanting to turn him loose seems, at best, cavalier. All of which seriously unbalances the second act’s arguments about racism, ethnocentric psychiatry, and the medical community’s responsibility to patients and to society at large.
Not that this reduces the urgency of the conversation in performance. Skidmore’s production makes clever use of Andrew Cissna’s unobtrusive lighting (just try to find the source of the ceiling fan’s shadow) while making a decent case for Penhall’s drama. If the evening isn’t quite as provocative as it wants to be, it remains a clever mix of elements from similarly structured dramas—Equus and Oriana, to name two—where doctors feel bested by patients, teachers by students, and no one with a strong opinion escapes pinioning.