I cannot say that I have ever seen a play about the medical world from the perspective of the operating table. That is, until now. At the HERE Arts Center’s MainStage, I saw a double-header of two evocative, short medical plays set during two major wars in our world’s history. We are transplanted to the Civil War in Sawbones, then we journey on to WWII in Germany in The Diamond Eater. Both plays were written by Carrie Robbins and, I was shocked by this, based on true stories by RD Robbins MD.
First up, Sawbones is divided into two parts set in 1862 during the Civil War in Virginia and 1871 in Nebraska. “Part 1: Scenes from an Amputation” features Gregory Marlowe as Jebidiah Wall, a freeman of color who collects injured soldiers and delivers them to a field hospital to hopefully be saved. Jebidiah comes across a young Confederate soldier by the name of Elmer Cobb (played by Thomas Leverton) who has been shot in the leg. Through the kindness of his heart, Jebidiah collects Elmer, despite their being from different sides, and endeavors to see him safely to the hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, we are exposed to the stark reality of minimal sanitation, primitive surgical tools, piles of amputated limbs, and the fact that few survived their operation. We meet several characters at the field hospital, including a closed-minded hospital steward (played by Alexander Salamat) who refuses to help anyone from the South, especially Elmer, and Dr. Everett Sloane (played by Timothy Roselle) who proves useless due to his showing signs of small pox. It’s Dr. Cordell S. Cuttaridge (played by Wynn Harmon) who works with Jebidiah to complete the amputation of Elmer’s leg. When every other certified practitioner proved useless during the operation, Dr. Cuttaridge entrusted in Jebidiah to follow his instructions and aid in the operation. Not often do you see simulated surgeries performed on stage, but the authenticity of the actors’ performances and the brutal realism of the situation heightened the emotions of the scene.
Jebidiah’s curiosity at what he was observing and learning mirrored the audiences’ (except for those who had sensitive stomachs). Doctors who did amputations during the war, we learn, were called “sawbones.”The tenderness of Jebidiah’s empathy and care for Elmer as well as his devotion to Dr. Cuttaridge offer the hope in humanity that one often seeks in times of war. Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz performed the saw music (yes, she creates music with a saw) by composer Scott Munson, which added an ironic and haunting beauty to the piece. Who knew that such sweet sounds could come from such a terrifying device. The changing colors of the projected landscaped offered hope in the wake of stark circumstances.
“Part 2: The Testament of Doc Cuttaridge” featured Erika Rolfsrud as Miz Cora, a saloon “Proprietrix”and dear friend to Dr. Cuttaridge, who was serving as a doctor in the Black Gulch. Miz Cora explains that Dr. Cuttaridge is dead and reflects on her memories of him and the people whose lives he touched through letters and flashbacks. We learn that he inspired and helped the once illiterate Jebidiah Wall to get into medical school in Edinburgh. It is a sort of cruel irony that the doctor died at the hands of a man he saved during the war. While trying to help a woman during her breeched birth, he is shot in the leg (just like Elmer Cobb) by the drunken husband who was an amputee patient of his during the war. Seeing as he was the only doctor in town, the doctor was forced to die a slow death, but only after finishing the delivery of the baby. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it is a happy tearjerker!
Next up, The Diamond Eater begins with an introductory story by a doctor who shares with us a few stories, including that of the female inmates at Rikers Island who swallowed razor blades to got to the hospital for a while and escape the glum life of prison for a while. While the moment seemed rather abstract compared with the rest of the play, it does tie into the rest of the story. We are swiftly transported to a concentration camp, established by incredible projections of a charcoal drawing against a butchers curtain that looked like it came from a scene in the Hostel movies. It became abundantly clear that we were in for a heavy emotional journey. A Jewish jeweler by the name of Avraham Millstein, played by Erik Kuttner, tells his story to a doctor.
Meanwhile, Jewish Dr. Kuttermann (also played by Roselle), who is forced to work for the Germans at the camp, reflects on the wretched things he has witnessed and been forced to do while trying to write a final account. The terrifying Oberschaarfuhrer Dietz (played by Tony Naumovski) barges in drunk, establishing who’s in control and foretelling of a new task for the doctor. Later we find out that Dietz wants the doctor to conduct an experiment where he transplants the kidney of a gypsy into a Jew, leaving the gypsy to die, and checking back weekly (through repeated operations) to see if the kidney is working in the Jewish patient. Dietz sees it as a possibly great medical discovery, and he is in a rush to get it done before the impending Americans arrive. Kuttermann is disgusted and terrified by this task (as is the audience), but he has no choice but to do it.
Avarham continues with his account, describing the squalid conditions of the boxcar that brought him to the work camp and the dividing of the able-bodied from the soon to-be-dead upon arrival. Finally, the big secret, he manages to procure 17 diamonds from his pocket before he was forced to strip, and he consumes them all in order to keep them. He goes from narrator to participant as we witness him along with other Jewish people arriving at the camps. We are privy to the painful process of him evacuation the diamonds and quickly re-consuming them, which was extremely grim to see. I could only begin to imagine the damage those hard pieces were doing to his insides!
It’s time for the experiment, and guess who is chosen? Poor, unfortunate Avraham is selected to undergo the kidney transplant along with a random gypsy woman (played by Jenne Vath). Kuttermann is given an anesthesiologist to work with, Dr. Polsky (played again by Wynn Harmon), who is against the operation, and rightly so. Kuttermann conspires with Polsky to make sure there will be no transplant, even at the risk of death. In a less than adequate Crematorium, the doctors bring in the gurneys and the detestable Dietz arrives with a date to watch the operation, as if it were a spectacle. He and his date stick around to see the kidney removed by the gypsy, but they are too turned on a go for a romp outside the room (mental jaw dropped). I felt so bad for the poor gypsy woman, but the two men quickly moved on to Avraham. They had to make an incision to make it look real, and what happens next is really bizarre. Kuttermann wanted to fish around inside the poor fellow to feel everything before stitching him up! Because he missed performing operations! Different strokes for different folks, but it certainly seem like the time or the place. When he got to the intestines, guess what he found? What he did next was quite extraordinary, but I will let you discover that when you go see the play.
Both plays are very powerful, although I do wish part two of Sawbones gave us more on the growth of Jebidiah as a doctor. The actors gave wonderful performances, and the costumes were incredible! I must say the Carrie Robbins did an excellent job costuming her plays, and director Tazewell Thompson created two worlds full of strong, believable characters. Sawbones and The Diamond Eater is running through June 7th at the HERE Arts Center. Get your tickets at here.org.