One small moment, in a stack of far more momentous moments, captures my attention in the darkened theater. A woman onstage, part of a TV panel assembled to grill a doctor for her alleged insensitivity to race and religion, introduces herself as “specializing in the study of post-colonial social politics”—and the audience cracks up.
Nobody even needs to hear the rest. I am laughing too, in sheer catharsis, because so much has been thrown at us from so many directions that I often feel beleaguered and worry that I am swinging to the wrong side in exasperation. What a relief, that a New York audience feels the same frustration.
But then the moment deepens, because the woman we think is about to trip over her own empty rhetoric proceeds to argue with such calm strength that the doctor, with whom we have sympathized, is wrong-footed and, for the first time, falters. The arrogance that corrected her colleagues’ grammar mid-sentence dissolves, because her own use of language has compromised her. The assurance with which she declared, as a habit of speech, “I am crystal clear on this”—is gone.
None of us is crystal clear on much of anything. That is the refreshment of this play, now on Broadway after a triumphant London run. The Doctor mocks identity politics even as it turns them against us, casting women as men and White actors as Black characters. After years of all of us choosing up sides, art proves the project impossible.
A compelling, jangling play, The Doctor was freely adapted by Robert Icke from a classic by Arthur Schnitzler. The original tells the story of a Jewish doctor in Vienna who refused to allow a priest to give last rites to a woman dying after an abortion, lest the priest destroy her euphoric peace by revealing that she is dying. The play eviscerates antisemitism, anti-elitism, and the stigma of abortion; it is hardly a frolic. And now Icke has woven our current issues into that plot, making the doctor a woman and the patient a fourteen-year-old girl. He also adds a young neighbor who is transgender, a lesbian partner with dementia, a suicide, a political optics battle over whether to hire a Jewish woman or a Black male, and a witch hunt with academics, activists, click-hungry media, jealous or antisemitic colleagues, and a grieving father in simultaneous pursuit.
You want to root for the doctor, who is now named Ruth Wolff and, as a woman, a likelier witch. Uninterested in placating the mob, she vibrates with intellect, passionate dedication, and the aforementioned crystal-clear certainty. “I don’t go in for groups,” she says icily when harangued about her identity and behavior. “What I can’t abide is this endless dividing up of people into tribes and smaller tribes of smaller tribes. You cut humanity in half enough times, eventually it ceases to exist.”
Even as you applaud Wolff’s strength, though, you note its arrogance. You watch, rapt, as she breaks down, humbled into honesty. Was it her right to bar a priest from her teenage patient’s room, even when the girl’s parents believed that without that final sacrament, their daughter would burn in hell for aborting her child? Wolff sees the tragedy of a child forced to act on her own, the botched, self-administered abortion that led to sepsis and death. The family sees the tragedy of a beloved daughter unshriven, condemned to hell in defiance of their wishes by a doctor who ignored their beliefs.
Juliet Stevenson does more than play Ruth Wolff, she lives her. Ironically, Wolff is one of the few parts cast to type—White female. But Stevenson is quick to defend what one commenter called the “muddled, uber-woke casting” that swapped the other parts, defying the (also uber-woke) trend of only allowing a role to be played by an actor with precisely those demographic traits. “My job description as an actor is to tell other’s stories, to imagine myself into other people’s lives,” she told The New York Times. “Let’s not lose our richness. Let’s throw all these subjects up in the air and let them catch the light as they fall.”
New York Stage Review called the play “blazing and deeply therapeutic entertainment.” But just as the script keeps us swinging between perspectives, so do the critics; The New Yorker’s was “chilled by Icke’s switch from Schnitzler’s cool-eyed diagnosis of antisemitism to simplistic grievances about language policing.” Are they simplistic, though? We are testing how much freedom we can allow one another, how much we can forgive. Yes, grievances have been reduced to a few charged labels and insults, but Icke refuses to let us to preserve that clarity. He sets us down on the sharp, uncomfortable fulcrum. Just when we hate Wolff, with her obsessive, reflexive carping about the purity of language, something is said that softens us. Just when we hate her accusers, something tilts us toward them. Throughout, we see how powerful a single word can be—and how inadequate and misunderstood many of our words have become.
“When the end comes,” Wolff remarks, “it shows itself first in the language.”
After years of longing for my own “side” to prove its points, I was ready for this play. Ready to admit there are no easy answers, and to wince at the errors all of us have made—because we could not manage to think through every situation in its particulars, because we were loyal to our own political tribe, or because we chose science over faith or faith over science. The Doctor makes it hard to even say which characters are “woke,” because preconceptions and knee-jerk behaviors take so many forms. Thoroughly supportive of her transgender neighbor, Wolff winds up unwittingly outing her. Fiercely dedicated to healing the body, she forgets the soul. She is ruthlessly honest in her dealings with others, yet cannot admit, even to herself, the force of her private grief and guilt. Or the way her skill and acclaim have habituated her to power and control.
In the final scene, Icke uses our current frustration with the arrogance of both science and religion to sharpen the clash between them. Wolff wanted her young patient to have a peaceful death—by her definition. The priest wanted her to have the peace of being right with God, as he defined that. There are some wonderful exchanges when they finally talk, quietly, in Wolff’s garden:
“If a lie means hope, that lie could save your life,” she points out.
“In my line of work, we’ve known that a long time,” the priest replies.
“Well you should have told us.”
“Well you should have listened.”
Ruefully, she observes that “things are ending… The postwar institutions, the postwar ideals. The public good that blossomed after peace. All the things they fought for. Falling apart…. Does it feel like faith is ending?”
“It feels like it’s shedding a skin.”
Later, reverting to form, she reminds the priest tartly, “When you’re old and lying on a ward, it’s not mystery you’ll want, but doctors…. In the end, it’s me you’ll come to when you have your heart attack.”
“And it’s God you’ll pray to,” he rejoins, “when someone you love dies.”
All this wrangling that has driven me mad, these culture wars and cancellations? They turned stupid because nobody was listening. Differences have to be honored and made room for—not calcified and used as battering rams. We cannot let ourselves be reduced to just one way of seeing the world.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.