The Phoenix Theatre has reached across the pond for its inaugural production, introducing the company and the popular British play "Blue/Orange" to Pittsburgh. Joe Penhall's award-winning work that targets racial prejudice and health care hit the Phoenix's mission of diversity in subject matter and hopefully will fulfill the aim of attracting a diverse audience.
"It's an ideal play, although I didn't think so at first," said director Andrew Paul, who with Mark Clayton Southers is co-founder of the new Pittsburgh company.
"My concern was that it was too provocative and it might have the undesired effect of turning people off because it is about a black mental patient and how he's manipulated by doctors. What I love about Mark is he said, 'That's why it's interesting for the black community, and yeah, let's push people's buttons. We should be bold and provocative; we should lead with something that's edgy and may upset people.' "
"Blue/Orange" is a take on a story we've seen before -- the most likable or charismatic guy in the room is the one deemed mentally ill, bringing the doctors' course of action into question. Other plays/movies -- "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Equus" -- have explored the points before, and "Blue/Orange" adds the state of health care and the disparity in diagnoses for different ethnic groups to the equation. The setting is a London hospital, but the subjects also hit home in the United States.
In the 2001 Olivier Award winner for best new play, two doctors clash over the treatment of a young man claiming to be the son of an African dictator. The roles were originated by Bill Nighy and two relative unknowns -- Chiwetel Ejiofor ("12 Years a Slave") and Andrew Lincoln ("The Walking Dead"). In 2005, the play was adapted for a BBC television film that starred Shaun Parkes, Brian Cox and John Simm.
Rico Parker will play young Christopher, who insists an orange is blue and that his father is Idi Amin.
"He's an amazing instinctual actor who has had no training," Mr. Paul said. "I have seen him in two productions -- Mark worked with him in Florida and in Sean O'Leary's 'Valu-Mart' [for Pittsburgh Playwrights]. I thought he was terrific. He has great energy and has the ability to be childlike and ferocious, simultaneously. ... Once we had him in place, I knew we had excellent actors for the other roles; David and Sam are going to be perfect."
Veteran actors David Whalen and Sam Tsoutsouvas portray the doctors who have different ideas about Christopher's diagnosis and treatment, with Mr. Whalen as the idealistic protege Dr. Bruce Flaherty and Mr. Tsoutsouvas as Dr. Robert Smith, who "has an innate pomposity, the sort you get in academia that's impervious to doubt," Mr. Paul said.
Christopher has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, but Dr. Flaherty believes he is schizophrenic and should not be released, while Dr. Smith has other ideas. Their need to prove their points grows to outweigh Christopher's needs.
"The play gets increasingly outrageous as it goes on, when the doctors attack each other through their patient. These are people who don't see themselves as prejudiced, but they do and say things that are, well, scary -- and hilarious," Mr. Paul said.
American audiences can relate to the play through the continuing disparity in diagnosing mental illness in African-Americans vs. non-Hispanic white Americans. "The numbers are staggering," the director said. For example, a U.S. Veterans Administration report cited by the Washington Post in 2005 noted that although schizophrenia has been shown to affect ethnic groups at the same rate, the study found "that blacks in the United States were more than four times as likely to be diagnosed with the disorder as whites."
"Blue/Orange" addresses such topics but attempts to leave conclusions up to the audience.
"The play is very ambiguous and purposefully, so that you are never sure if [Christopher] is mentally ill or not, although the playwright says flat out that he's schizophrenic," the director said. "He's the most likable character in the play and the most cogent. The audience tends to want to side with him, which is interesting."
Mr. Paul and Mr. Southers announced a four-play season when they officially launched their new company in September, but The Phoenix was in the works before then and, as with any new venture, is an ongoing effort. It has been a while since the former leader of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre has been in the director's chair for a local company.
"The actual rehearsing of the play is a joy to me," Mr. Paul said. "With the stage manager, there are only five of us in the room, so it's a tight group, and this play is not about only important issues, it's also tremendously funny."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.