'Cherry Docs' at New Rep: a Kick in the Gut
Written by David Gow; Directed by David Gammons; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound and Video Design, Adam Stone; Properties Design, Lauren L. Duffy; Stage Manager, Jayscott Crosley
CAST: Tim Eliot, Mike; Benjamin Evett, Danny
Two actors take the stage and stand in a severely angular, harshly lit, grayish-white oblong room, narrowly pointed at one end, wide open to the auditorium at the other. The older man wears a neat, dark suit with a white shirt and red tie. The younger man is dressed in a white prison jumpsuit, barefoot before donning white slip-on sneakers. His head is shaved. There is a stark contrast in their visual impact upon us and we think we know them. We don't know them at all.
Over the course of approximately 90 minutes, we learn who they are and who they will become, thanks to the precise detail and incredible depth of writing by Jewish-Canadian playwright David Gow, the compelling direction of David Gammons, and the riveting, realistic portrayals by Benjamin Evett and Tim Eliot. In the New Repertory Theatre's New England premiere of Cherry Docs, these collaborators create a dramatic portrait of a middle-age Jewish lawyer assigned to defend a young racist skinhead on trial for the brutal killing of a Southeast Asian immigrant in Toronto. The story of how they overcome their innate differences, help each other to better understand their own psyches, and walk a mile in the other's wingtips or Doc Martens is powerfully expressed through didactic monologues and intense face-to-face meetings between the two men in a prison interrogation room.
At the outset, Danny Dunkleman (Evett) is the good guy, a liberal who believes that everyone deserves a fair trial. Appointed by the court to represent Mike Downey (Eliot), they both know that Danny will do his best to defend him because his morality requires it, despite the fact that his client would opt for his elimination in an ideal world. Mike is the bad guy, misunderstood and insecure, but bright and strong enough to be menacing. However, Gow has written two three-dimensional characters who are more than the sum of their checklist of parts. As Mike explains to Danny, he wants to be defended for who he is, not for his ideas, nor for the skinhead movement of which he is a member. Similarly, in order to gain his trust and cooperation, Danny must show Mike the heart and soul of the man whose chest bears the Star of David.
Cherry Docs is framed within seven acts or days, announced on bilateral projection screens that double as opaque windows, and takes place over the time span of about seven months, from the winter solstice to mid-July. In addition to the number seven which figures significantly in Judaism, the playwright employs other Jewish symbols and holidays to explore Danny's inner life and connect with the tenets of his religion, especially those related to forgiveness and atonement. Does his responsibility to his client include making him atone and seek forgiveness for his heinous act? What questions must Danny ask himself in order to honestly assess his own motivations? Can he continue to rely on his previous notions about humanity? Can a man who seeks retribution shift his steps to the path of redemption?
Although there would be no play without these developments, Danny's journey is somewhat unexpected. Conversely, Mike's transformation is born of necessity. That makes it no less dramatic, as it is also born of tremendous internal struggle which Eliot displays masterfully. As dangerous and explosive as the role requires him to be, he is also able to make his character vulnerable and evoke sympathy for him. Eliot finds the lonely, fearful boy who lives under the façade of the loyal foot soldier spitefully ranting about the spawn of Satan. Evett plays Danny as the picture of confidence and intellectual superiority, waving around a Cuban cigar and verbally manhandling the young prisoner when they first meet. As the lawyer's life is increasingly consumed by the case, Evett's posture shifts, his swagger diminishes, and his facial expressions become more question mark than exclamation point.
Part of the power of the play lies in its unceasing dramatic pounding; performed without intermission, neither actor leaves the stage. When one is in the spotlight delivering a monologue, the other is engaged in some silent activity elsewhere on the set. They don't get a break and neither do we. As the emotional intensity builds, both Evett and Eliot do an amazing job of measuring and sustaining it, conserving enough of their strength and stamina to explode at just the right moments. The sound of cell doors slamming and the theatrical effects of the lighting have a visceral impact, sending a collective shudder through the audience.
The breadth and depth of Cherry Docs is astounding. As a theatergoer, I attend a play with a set of expectations and must admit that they were far off the mark. I expected intensity vis-à-vis the oppositional nature of the two characters, but the reality is that the intensity comes from the developing relationship between Danny and Mike and their individual paths to enlightenment, as it were, as well as from being drawn into their claustrophobic world. In the end, they are not the only ones asking questions. It is impossible to sit through Cherry Docs without beginning to play around with your own views of humanity, tolerance, fear, hatred, love, and forgiveness. This is a play that will make you think and hold your interest long after the lights go down. New Rep is to be applauded for staging this challenging work.
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Benjamin Evett, Tim Eliot)