Who gets to determine whether a life is worth living or not? That’s the central question posed by Stageworks Theatre of Holly Springs’ current production of the compelling 1978 play Whose Life Is It Anyway? by British dramatist Brian Clark. This disquieting theme has given this work the legs to endure, and it resonates just as strongly today as it did in decades past on stage and television and in its 1981 film adaptation, starring Richard Dreyfuss.
The lead role of Claire Henderson, a prolific sculptor who has survived a horrific accident that severed her (or his) spinal cord, is adaptable for a male or female. Valiant doctors have brought Claire (played here by Jenny Marconyak) back from the brink of death, but left her in an unimaginable quandary: her brilliant mind is alive and well, but trapped inside a body that can’t move.
Unable to survive without constant care, Claire is totally cut off from her artistic expression. Her scathing wit and considerable charm are not enough for her to face the life that is left to her, and so she does not wish to go on living. What ensues is an emotionally grueling power play between Claire’s free will and the doctors who are fighting to keep her alive, even if they have to act against their patient’s expressed wishes.
The daunting role of Claire is performed commendably by Jenny Marconyak, whose acerbic jokes and witty banter brought the emotional depth demanded of her, captivating the audience from the opening scene and holding them captive to her plight as the drama unfolds. Alison Takacs plays head Nurse Anderson, who spends as much time caring for her reluctant patient as she does corralling her intern Mary Jo Sadler (sweetly played by Rebecca Nelson).
Kris O’Niel brings some delightful comic relief as a hospital orderly who hits on staff and patients alike. Newcomer to the Holly Springs stage Shane Klosowski plays Dr. Scott, the more empathetic of Claire’s doctorial staff; and Klosowski brings a charming awkwardness to the role, allowing Jenny Marconyak’s Claire to express some of the more tender sides of her character.
Dr. Emerson (played by Gary Pezzullo) has probably the most thankless job in the play, as the main opponent to Claire’s wishes. Pezzullo hits an effective balance between being offensively dismissive, and deeply concerned for the value of his patient’s life.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Margaret Hill (a fiery Carla Reck), the lawyer who decides to take Claire’s case for the sake of preserving personal freedom, despite her own personal objections; Ms. Hill’s legal partner Peter Kershaw (Joel McLaughlin); hospital lawyer Andrea Eden (Dena Konkel); Mrs. Boyle (an effervescent Rita Hewell), the counselor whose cheerful attempts to give Claire something to live for only further set her on her determined path; Dr. Jacobs (Anthony Spivy) and Dr. Barr (Tom Garlock), the psychiatrists who examine Claire to establish whether or not her understandably depressed state is grounds for mental incapacity; and the honorable Judge Wyler (played with stern yet heartfelt intensity by Marge Mueller) and the court stenographer (Gina Anderson) who hold hearing at the hospital to determine the case.
The well-designed set puts Claire’s hospital room downstage, with upstage areas designated as the nurse’s station and doctor’s office respectively. Simple lighting cues effectively keep the audience’s focus moving from scene to scene. Since the main character is bed-ridden and can’t move, this directing choice works very well to prevent audience fatigue. The convincing set, smooth transitions (Laura Baker, stage manager), excellent writing, and ardent performances kept the audience riveted. The energetic and engaged May 31st opening-night audience responded with laughter, tears, and every emotion in-between.
This play is an intricately written chess match between equally matched opposing forces, with the very definition of sanity and personal freedoms on the line. Director Dan Barth doesn’t pull any punches, letting his actors explore this taboo subject with raw intensity. Few theater companies would tackle such subject matter, so seeing such a strong showing for the third show of Stageworks Theatre’s inaugural season gives this reviewer great hope for this young theater company. They should be extremely proud of this show, as it is probably their strongest showing to date.
Whose Life Is It Anyway? plays at the Holly Springs Cultural Center this weekend only. Do not miss taking this journey, no matter which side of the issue you think you stand on. Before the final bows take place, you just might change your mind.
Stageworks Theatre presents WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? at 7:30 p.m. June 1 and 3 and 7:30 p.m. June 2 at the Holly Springs Cultural Center, 300 W Ballentine St, Holly Springs, North Carolina 27540.
TICKETS: $12.98 ($11.13 students and seniors), plus convenience or handling fees.
BOX OFFICE: 919-567-4000 or https://www.etix.com/ticket/v/3443.
INFORMATION: 919-567-4000 or StageworksTheatreNC@gmail.com.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.facebook.com/StageworksTheatreofHollySprings/videos/1461731997312951/, https://www.facebook.com/StageworksTheatreofHollySprings/videos/1462696807216470/, and https://www.facebook.com/StageworksTheatreofHollySprings/videos/1463353283817489/.
Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1972 television play and 1978 West End and 1979 Broadway play): https://www.dramaticpublishing.com/whose-life-is-it-anyway (male lead) and https://www.dramaticpublishing.com/whose-life-is-it-anyway-w48000 (female lead) (Dramatic Publishing), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/whose-life-is-it-anyway-9352 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whose_Life_Is_It_Anyway%3F_(play) (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Brian Clark (British playwright and screenwriter): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/brian-clark-4595 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0163727/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Clark_(writer) (Wikipedia).
Daniel Barth (Clayton, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/dan.barth.12 (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.