Theater in Need of a Full Code
Alexis Cooley • November 2, 2016 • Art •
“When a patient with a full code status has an acute episode where his or her heartbeat is on the verge of stopping or has completely stopped, the health care team will often provide emergent measures in attempt to resuscitate the patient.” (Secemsky. Breaking it Down: The Patient Code Status. Huffington Post)
Producing new theatrical work is a daunting task.
Any company that dedicates itself to the production of new and innovative theatre takes on the heavy task of nurturing both the playwright’s work, and the production’s needs, to create something new and different.
As I entered the Grace Gramm Theater at The Dairy Arts Center for Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s (BETC) world premiere production of David Valdes Greenwood’s “Full Code” I realized that the excitement that I felt was felt by nearly everyone in the audience. The crowd was abuzz with conversation about many of the shows in BETC’s recent production calendar. I was thrilled to be in a room filled with audience members engaged in the process of producing new work!
So it was a bit of surprise that as the show began it felt stilted and incomplete. The dialogue, quick and pithy, was rattled off at high speed and without connection. At first I felt it may be a specific choice to heighten the production’s style. Many of the actors seemed to be running through their lines, and for nearly the entire first act I desperately wanted someone, anyone, to really listen to the others on stage. But this was not the case.
The script delves into the life of Sander (a coma patient played by Casey Andree), his wife Callie (Laura Norman) and his “work wife” Lauren (Maire Higgins). The relationships are laid out within the first few minutes in a few disparate scenes that give both depth, and at times levity, to the story as it unfolds. Sander’s well-intentioned relationships are in awkward places: Is his separation from his wife, Callie, permanent? Does he intend to move forward in anyway with the extraordinarily southern Lauren? What does the dynamic, and unforgiving, Jackie, a colleague that Sander had recently fired, have to say in all of this?
(Side note: as a woman from the South I was taken aback by the heightened accent of the character of Lauren. There seemed to be no reason to write Lauren as Southern. While I have certainly heard women speak with a VERY thick southern drawl, this character’s accent seemed to be cobbled together from many different regions, and therefore felt disingenuous and undercut some of her most powerful words and moments.)
As the show progresses, we learn more of Sander who is on stage the entire show. Cutting (predominately) between the waiting room of the hospital and Sander’s individual room, the “peripheral” characters fill us in on what they know: Lauren has come with Sander to many of his previous doctor’s appointments leading us to ask, where has his wife been? Lauren is sweet (the staff loves her and looks out for her), while Callie is “hard” and unknown (the staff has never seen her before).
It becomes clear that while everything is not as it seems to the women in Sander’s life, if he woke up he could correct all of the miscommunication and trouble that is surrounding the people he cares about.
It comes to light that Sander has changed his final wishes and switched from a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order to a Full Code – which means do everything possible to resuscitate. This comes as a shock to his wife, but not to the ever-present Lauren who helped push Sander into changing his mind. This marks a notable change in Sander’s views: he has become a more open and hopeful person with Lauren in his life.
We have been led to believe that if Sander is to wake up, he will be forced to make a decision immediately about who he loves: the woman who has been his best friend and wife for his entire adult life, or the Southern belle who promotes a more hopeful future. In many ways, it is hard to identify with either woman and that is where we need Jackie: to show us who Sander really is. Unfortunately, the talented Karen Slack is underutilized in this role; she has been blocked most of the time speaking upstage to the bedridden Sander. The actress’s best work appears to be to the wall. When she is given space, Jackie is the only character that feels completely multi-dimensional and full – part worry, part sorrow, with a thread of real humanity, Jackie reminds all of us what tragedy can befall the relationships of even the best of. (This is a testament to the abilities of the actress that we can see so much of this from the back of her head and shoulders.) When she finally meets Callie, she is a complicated mix of genuine fear for her old friend, and seething anger at what Sander has put her and her family through.
A few other mentions must be made for Dr. See / Mel (Devon James) and Dennis (Warren Sherrill). Each of these artists gave tremendous performances within their pivotal roles. Dennis is obviously the beating heart of the hospital, offering hope and resiliency for those patients, and their families – and Dennis listens! While the role of Dr. See felt a bit one-dimensional, Ms. James attacks the role of Mel with a tremendous amount of force and heart, and she is the only character with an identifiable Bostonian accent in a play set in Boston.
I found many parts of the set and production design confusing. From the unusual choice to forgo many of the tubes and cords found in a hospital and then miming the use of those items, to the incongruous “marbleizing” of the floor, the set felt unfinished. The lighting was a little overzealous for my taste, and while I loved the concept of the sliding set walls, they looked as though they were partitions for a community center rec room, and did not seem to belong within the hospital setting. The sound design, as well, felt uninspired and gratuitous when it existed – as though it was an afterthought. If only they could have allowed the broken snack machine onstage to underscore the show with its unrelenting hum, but instead the machine was obviously not plugged in – making it infuriating that folks kept putting money into it.
As “Full Code” comes to an end the audience waits to learn if Sander will wake up – and if he does who will he return to? The ending is satisfying without being cute, and remains one of the most believable parts of the production.
Overall, the show felt unfinished, as though with a few more weeks work it could be great. I genuinely enjoyed the script, but felt that more “fat” could be cut (the character of Joseph (Luke Sorge) neither enhanced nor detracted from the story). The material is timely, the pacing was clean, and the payoff was strongly defined. I appreciate the work that went into this production, but left wanting more. More listening and connection, more realistic attention to detail, and more engagement with the world within the world of the play. More of the work that BETC is known for.