‘The Living’ to discuss humanity in the face of deadly epidemic

by Helen Liu | 11/14/19 2:00am

20191107-living-0031
by Robert C Strong II / The Dartmouth

Bringing a new perspective to our understanding of how people react in the face of disease is this term’s MainStage theater performance “The Living,” which will be performed in The Moore Theater from Nov. 15 to 17. With darkly dramatic scenes and a profound take on the humanity of remaining kind in the face of adversity, the play recalls the struggle of Londoners in 1665 during the height of the bubonic plague in a way that is current and unmistakably relevant to the epidemics that still threaten to unravel society today.

“The Living” depicts different characters interacting and processing the onset of the bubonic plague.. The play itself tackles some very difficult subject matters, including death, loss and the delicate balance between morality and survival. Each character is forced to confront the extent of their compassion for other people in the face of an active threat against their own well-being. The play is an incredibly emotional depiction of human suffering, and the hardships that each character undergoes are horrifying yet strikingly real. 

The cast brings to life the grit and tenacity of true survivors in a time where just staying alive is a challenge. Characters include Sarah Chandler, a mother left with no one but herself to lean on, played by Kerrigan Quenemoen ’20, Sir John Lawrence, a mayor singlehandedly saddled with the impossible task of restoring London to its former glory, played by Jenna Gallagher ’21, and Reverend Thomas Vincent, a clergyman who begins to question his own faith, played by Sophia Kinne ’20. These troubled individuals do the best that they can to survive given the little they have left in the wake of an unrelenting disease. They support each other through their worst crises and keep each other from succumbing to hopelessness, forming a united front against an indefatigable enemy. 

“What stands out to me is the sense of humanity that’s underlined in the play,” said director Jamie Horton. “It really is about people helping other people in a time of colossal affliction.”

Having himself played the role of tradesman John Graunt in the 1992 world premiere of the play, Horton said he feels a special connection to this production. According to Horton, it was refreshing to approach the play from a director’s perspective rather than an actor.

“The Living” was written by Anthony Clarvoe during the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the play uses the 17th century bubonic plague to parallel the seemingly unstoppable progression of AIDS in the 1980s and 90s. 

“When you look at it through that lens, some of the lines in the play are really telling,” Gallagher said.

A crowd favorite was the one-liner delivered by Lord Brounker, portrayed by Gabriel Jenkinson ’20: “Just a moment. Are you proposing the government pay for medical care?” Contrasting the grim nature of death and the AIDS epidemic, the writing of the play is often witty and clever, which adds a dimension to the show beyond just misery and suffering. 

In addition to dialogue, the actors took care to communicate their characters’ fear of contamination through movement and staging. It is impossible to ignore how none of the characters touch each other at all until the very end of the play. They are all so terrified of jeopardizing their own health that they cannot bring themselves to come close to other people. This decision creates a telling distance between characters that informs how the audience perceives their anxious states of mind and establishes a general atmosphere of paranoia and fear throughout the play, much like the terrible tension felt throughout society during the AIDS crisis.

According to Gallagher, considering the persistence of modern-day epidemics like Ebola and the Zika virus, the play is quite relevant in spite of the difference in era.

The entire production is extremely well-researched and historically accurate, in large part thanks to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center epidemiologist Elizabeth Talbot, who gave the cast an informed perspective on how people truly react when faced with pandemics like the plague. Having worked with Ebola victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo, she was able to not only teach the cast about epidemics in general but also help them develop various subtleties in their actions to reflect the reality of being unable to touch other people — to have to fight the instinct to hug and comfort others for the sake of staying alive.

Another notable aspect of the play is that several of its male characters are played by women. According to Gallagher, the objective of the women who were casted was not to imitate men, but rather to first respond to the characters personally and genuinely and then add a few minor gender-specific movement adjustments. Additionally, Horton said that the play features more women actors in order to expand upon a traditionally male-dominated cast.

Gallagher said that she didn’t approach the play with the intent of playing a male character, but focused more on the personability of the character itself.

“I fully played the role as myself,” Gallagher said.

Design details in the sound, lighting and set were also used to highlight crucial themes of the play. The character John Graunt, played by Holden Harris ’20, describes the homes of the time as “crates of poisoned air floating in the air,” which is directly reflected in the set itself — a literal crate floating in the air. That image serves as a continual visual reminder of the miasma that threatens to choke out the entire population at any time. 

Costume designer Laurie Churba created period silhouettes with modern fabrics to immerse the audience in the period in which the story is set. 

Sound and lighting are used dramatically throughout the show to incredible effect, heightening the emotion and power of every scene. This culminates in a final scene that leaves the audience with a lasting impression of hope, enduring and eternal.

“They’re reflecting on life and death and looking to the future as well,” said stage manager Catherine Darragh ’13.

Despite the dark themes that are prevalent throughout the play, it is ultimately neither depressing nor bleak; instead, the play inspires people to live on and face their destiny without fear.

“That’s why the play is called ‘The Living,’” Gallagher said. “It’s not supposed to be doom and gloom. It’s about the people who live — it’s about how we push forward, but we don’t forget what has happened. It’s about how we can pick ourselves back up and move on with kindness for others.”