If a person picks up an orange, a perfectly ordinary orange, and says it is blue, even continues to say it is blue when he peels it open, is that person delusional? That’s the question posed by Christopher, a young Black man in a London mental hospital, for the two psychiatrists who are treating him.
Young Dr. Bruce Flaherty I take to be what in the U.S. we would call a resident, an M.D. but still completing his training. Christopher is his patient. Bruce thinks he is borderline psychotic. He has been in the hospital for twenty-eight days. Under the rules of the British national health service, it is time for a decision: Christopher must be judged well enough to be released, or he must stay in the hospital until further observation and treatment render him capable of functioning in society. Bruce thinks he is not ready to go back to his Caribbean-English immigrant community, where he lives alone and knows no one well.
Dr. Robert Smith is Bruce’s mentor, middle aged, well established in his profession and one of the authorities in the hospital. He thinks Christopher will be better off back with his people. After all, what white people see as schizophrenia might be seen quite differently in a Black culture, with its different traditions and relationships. Robert is in fact working on a thesis, which he hopes soon to publish, about culture differences and their effect on observations and definitions of mental health. Observing Christopher in his own environment and its effect on his mental health might make a significant contribution to his study. Besides, he needs to free up Christophe’s bed for another patient in the under-funded national health service’s hospital.
Blue/Orange quickly turns into a battle between the two doctors, with the patient for whom they are responsible turned into a pawn in that battle. And Robert obviously has the upper hand. When we first meet him, Jason Meyers’ Bruce is confident, pleased with himself, secure in his diagnosis and treatment, anticipating his next step up the ladder of his profession. By the end, he is desperate, his job and his career at stake, haranguing Christopher with racist insults for failing to help him make his case. Robert overhears this diatribe, sealing Bruce’s fate.
As Robert, Ben Ritchie turns on a dime from the wise, sympathetic professor to a vicious attack on Bruce and his diagnosis while rejecting any disagreement with his own thinking.
And William Humphrey gives a deep and rich performance of Christopher, eager to go home except when he’s afraid to go home, trying to get the result he wants from each of the two men.
Playwright Joe Penhall’s publisher lists Orange//Blue as a “comedy/drama.” Others refer to it as “a sardonically comic piece,” as satire, or simply a comedy. At Stray Dog, Justin Been’s direction and the cast’s playing did not seem to me to be reaching for comedy. Satire, yes, of the two doctors, of the medical profession, of psychiatry in particular, of the British government’s medical bureaucracy, but not big-laugh satire. More the “and if I laugh at any mortal thing, it’s that I may not weep” laughter. And I suffered with the plights of Christopher and Bruce. The performances and the play move you.
Director Been’s sketchy set looked like a mental institution trying for some homey touches. Tyler Duenow’s lights, as always, illuminated efficiently and unobtrusively. Stray Dog’s Artistic Director Gary F. Bell designed the costumes, he and Been designed the properties, and Been designed the sound.
Photo by John Lamb