Theater Review: The Medicine Showdown

In riveting tale of WWI-era flu epidemic, current tensions and themes

Published on October 21, 2013by Elaine Meyer

What do we do about parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they believe the disease process is natural? How should we balance health regulations with  economic costs? Should Dr. Mehmet Oz be applauded or feared? When is naturopathy an acceptable alternative to Western medicine?

Although it is set nearly 100 years ago, The Medicine Showdown, from the Flying Carpet Theatre Company at the East 4th Street Theater in New York City, speaks to these and many other contemporary struggles in public health. Based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic Enemy of the People, writers Adam Koplan and Topher Payne skillfully blend vaudevillian comedy with a serious theme in this resonant story.

The year is 1918, and the deadly Spanish flu is making its way across Europe and the U.S. Although the small town of Norwich, Georgia, seems far removed from the urban areas and military encampments where the virus has spread, the town’s dedicated widow doctor, Dr. Claudia Hill (Susan Louise O’Connor), is worried that an outbreak is imminent.

She urges the town mayor, who is also her brother, Peter Stockman (Timothy McCown Reynolds), to close businesses, churches, and ban public gatherings in order to prevent the flu’s spread, pointing to two cases of influenza that have recently been diagnosed 200 miles away in Augusta.

Complicating this recommendation is the approaching roadshow of the charismatic Dr. Arthur Eggerton (Jay Rhoderick). With a smile like the Cheshire cat’s, he presents his popular “Miracle Medicine Show,” with the “positively contagious” tap dancing of Turks and Caicos’ own, Legs Benedict (Khalid Hill); an “authentic taste of the Far East” in the form of an offensively caricatured “Oriental” (also played by Timothy McCown Reynolds); and the sale of purportedly curative elixirs and soaps.

In between the dancing and mysticism, Dr. Eggerton preaches his theory of “de-rhythmification.” “If you’re sick, your blood is out of rhythm,” is his claim.

It becomes clear Dr. Eggerton cares more about self-promotion and revenue than disease prevention. We can certainly recognize in modern times this kind of  figure who uses his charisma to challenge the recommendations of establishment doctors. “You can’t believe everything you read,” says Dr. Eggerton self-servingly.  Example: according to the newspaper one in five babies born is Chinese, says Dr. Eggerton’s showman Tiny Two-Bits (John Wright). By that logic, my sister’s child will be Chinese, Two-Bits jokes.

Should the mayor issue a ban on the “Miracle Medicine Show,” which threatens to be not only an incubator for disease but also misinformation, Dr. Eggerton could hold the town to an $800 breach of contract fee.

Because of that steep cost and the town’s love of Dr. Eggerton’s show, Dr. Hill’s original allies—the mayor and her romantic interest, the editor of the town’s newspaper  Ben Colquitt (also played by John Wright)—begin to view the ban as alarmist and economically damaging. It doesn’t help that she is a woman and thus a target for accusations of “hysteria.”

The conflict is one we can easily recognize in many of today’s most contentious health debates, pitting the long game of preventive medicine against short term economic concerns and pitting Dr. Hill’s more difficult and scary message against Dr. Eggerton’s more appealing one.

“Eat your vegetables” is a lot less palatable than “come on, live a little.” And it is difficult, especially in a nation that clings to a myth of the self-made individual, to make the case for sacrificing individual liberty in service of a common good. We see this battle in some of the most controversial public health issues of the day, from vaccination and guns to sexually transmitted diseases.

While obviously more sympathetic to Dr. Hill, the play, to its credit, does not totally discount Dr. Eggerton and his persuasiveness. In fact, this character reflects the fact that public health is increasingly coming to recognize that communication is important, that delivery matters, and that a charismatic and accessible style is often easier for people to digest. To convey this point, the play cleverly puts the audience in the shoes of the Norwich townspeople, challenging us to examine how we might react to the two very different styles of delivery presented here.

When I found myself more taken in by Dr. Eggerton than Dr. Hill, I wondered whether, the act of communicating public health information and the science behind it to the public has to be one or the other. Perhaps we can take the best from the Dr. Eggerton column when we present information that might otherwise be complex and difficult to communicate.

The Medicine Showdown, directed by Jessi D. Hill, is playing through October 27. Several of the performances are followed by a Talkback Series.

Photo by David Gochfeld. Edited by Dana March