By Martin F. Kohn
Dr. McDreamy, Meredith Grey and company aren’t going to show up in Jim Leonard’s play “The Anatomy of Gray,” unless they happen to be in the audience. Receiving its Michigan premiere at the UDM Theatre Company, “The Anatomy of Gray” has nothing to do with the intrigue, romance and life-saving procedures at Seattle Grace Hospital.
It has intrigue, romance and life-saving procedures, all right. It even has a doctor named Gray, Dr. Galen P. Gray, played by Brian Thibault but unlike any physician on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” this doctor arrives in town via hot-air balloon during a tornado, having been wished for by a teenage girl named June Muldoon, played by Michelle Renaud. The doctor is nearly run out of town by an ignorant, fearful, pitchfork-wielding mob, and he faints at the sight of blood.
And the place where good doctor lands just happens to be named Gray. Gray, Indiana, and the time is the late 1800s.
This is the stuff of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Frankenstein,” of film and fable, not realistic drama. That should be no impediment to taking the play seriously, but in case you’re tempted to dismiss the proceedings as total fantasy, Leonard pulls you back with a jolt; a deadly plague strikes the town, a plague that marks its victims before it fells them.
In the unlikely event that you weren’t seeing this illness as a metaphor for AIDS, Leonard spells it out in out his program notes, thus becoming a rarity among dramatists – one who proactively answers the question: What is this play about? He then expounds upon the play’s other themes. I wish he hadn’t done that, as it makes my presence here superfluous, so thank you, and goodnight.
Well, no, not so fast.
Rather than being neatly squared off and tied up, “The Anatomy of Gray” is a floppy play. Some ideas are introduced, stick around for awhile and disappear. Others are carried through. There are moments of hilarity – how the doctor treats a kidney stone provides some wonderful physical comedy by Thibault, Dax Anderson as his patient, and Mary Bremer Beer as the patient’s sister; moments of mystery, why does the doctor visit the graveyard at night? – and moments of poignancy as the plague takes its toll.
Director Arthur J. Beer has a lot of figurative arms and legs to wrestle to the ground, which he manages to do. This is the kind of play that could easily get away from a director and become a shapeless mass.
Thibault’s doctor remains sympathetic and believable, despite his unlikely method of arrival and his ludicrous aversion to blood. In the relatively brief course of the play, Renaud’s dreamy teenager grows up, becoming wiser, stronger and self-reliant. Anderson maintains a steady resoluteness as the preacher who initially resents the doctor and is never entirely on his side, even after the doctor proves a great help.
Susan Reno, as June’s mother, Rebekah, negotiates perhaps the greatest number of moral issues, many of them having to do with her unborn child, another the matter of whether to allow June to leave and make her way in the world.
Beer and music director Greg Grobis have found a fine way to provide a sense of community by having the cast sing songs of the era between scenes.
‘The Anatomy of Gray’
UDM Theatre Company at Marygrove College Theatre, 8425 McNichols Rd., Detroit. Friday-Sunday through Nov. 13. $18. 313-993-3270. http://theatre.udmercy.edu