By Marcina Zaccaria
An impressive drama about medicine in 1918, “The Medicine Showdown” combines a traditional story, inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s classic “Enemy of the People,” with scenes from a turn-of-the-century medicine show. Topher Payne and Adam Koplan create a smart play that presents bold questions about public health.
If illness spreads throughout the entire town, will public buildings be closed? Can bark, roots, and herbs be the cure? If there is a cure, who is responsible for the money earned with an elixir or a tonic? The drama includes scenes about the complicated paths people take to prevent the spread of Spanish flu in Norwich, Georgia.
Jessi D. Hill directs a fine company of actors who find moments of happiness and despair as they attempt to find solutions to the deadly strain of influenza spreading like wildfire. She provides smart, sharp direction through each sequence of tap dance, old time melodrama, and vaudevillian comedy scenes. Details of the production are crafted and precise. Actors are not only true to each moment, but also glad to find nuance and genuine emotion in each plot twists.
Doctor Claudia Hill (Susan Louise O’Connor) is impassioned and empathetic as she meets with townspeople, the mayor, and a traveling doctor who is a driving force towards the promise of a better future. Dr. Hill is often distraught and exhausted as she goes to her bulletin board to detail the number of deaths of black and white citizens in town. She continually finds the more relevant matter as she negotiates with a medicine showman or gives messages to town local, Roy Horster.
Smart, succinct dance sequences by Choreographer Khalid Hill layer perfectly into the play. In portraying Legs Benedict, Hill finds humor while looking at more tragic circumstances surrounding health crisis. The choreography never seems stale or lost in another time. Timothy McCrown Reynolds is both whimsical and alert in his portrayal of both Chief TukTuk and Mayor Peter Stockman. As an Indian chief and a local mayor, he is exact in his gesture and intriguing in his manner. Carefully dodging formulaic concepts about charlatanism, Jay Roderick (Dr. Arthur Eggerton) presents his bold, strong opinions not so much like gospel but like common knowledge for the prevailing good. His advice is painstaking and meticulous, and his motives are complex. Roderick is a showman who is glad to inform people about an illness pattern, but is also willing to sell his elixir to make everyone better.
A great set by James Aitken is filled with old-fashioned banners and signs. It is unified and provides circus-like photos and portraits of the main characters. Period costumes by Moria Sine Clinton are detailed and bring out the best of each actor in this company of showmen. To round out the design, old fashioned money and face masks are given to the audience as they enter the East Village Theater on East 4th Street.
So many shows about this time period provide bizarre circumstances and peculiar phenomena, but “The Medicine Showdown” is more careful, thoughtful, and attentive to the subject matter at hand. While the show presents difficult questions and sometimes challenging thematic material, it is always a joy to watch and quite something when considering recent changes in American health care and possibilities for the future.
Running through October 27, “The Medicine Showdown” will have a performance schedule of 8pm on Wednesdays and 7:30pm Thursday through Sunday at the East 4th Street Theatre, 83 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue. Tickets for “The Medicine Showdown” are $20 and can be purchased from Brown Paper Tickets (direct link: http://goo.gl/ZakCMJ).