'Secret Order': Theatre of Highest Order at Merrimack Rep

By: May. 06, 2007
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Secret Order by Bob Clyman

Directed by Charles Towers

Scene Designer, Bill Clarke; Costume Designer, Martha Hally; Lighting Designer, Dan Kotlowitz; Sound Designer, Jamie Whoolery; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Assistant Stage Manager, Adam C. Scarano; Casting Director, Harriet Bass

CAST (in order of appearance)

Dr. William Shumway - Davis Duffield

Dr. Robert Brock - Geoff Pierson

Alice Curiton - Kelly McCreary

Dr. Saul Roth - David Rogers

Performances through May 20 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre                                                           

Box Office 978-654-4MRT www.merrimackrep.org

Secret Order is the story of a brilliant young scientist who may have discovered the cure for cancer.  That premise could stand on its own as a good play, but Bob Clyman has written more than a good play.  This is a first-rate work of substance that is not afraid to turn over some pretty big rocks and examine what lies beneath.  Medical ethics, power, and money are just a few of the specimens under his microscope.  Throw in religion, fraud, and father-son relationships, and you begin to get a sense of the range of issues Clyman deals with.

Merrimack Repertory Theatre closes out its 28th season with the New England premiere of Secret Order.  Artistic Director Charles Tower takes the helm and fashions a taut production of this psychological thriller. He guides the actors through the early exposition scenes with a light charm, gradually revealing the layers of each personality while building the suspense to its ultimate conclusion.  Even when an ethical choice at first seems obvious to the audience, Tower's direction leaves room to question the alternative and see the inner turmoil of the character.  He shows that there are no easy answers.

Dr. William Shumway (Davis Duffield) is a 30-something cell biologist from the University of Illinois who has created the R-cell, a cancer cell reprogrammed to deceive regular cancer cells into self-destructing.  As a result of this momentous achievement, he receives a job offer from Dr. Robert Brock (Geoff Pierson), the ambitious director of cancer research at the prestigious Hill-Matheson Institute in New York.  Ensconced in his new animal lab, Shumway makes progress with his research, finding that the R-cells shrink the tumors in mice.  News spreads, attracting the interest of Alice Curiton (Kelly McCreary), a junior at Harvard University, who seeks a summer internship.  Later, Brock informs Dr. Shumway that he has been offered a Friday slot for his presentation at the esteemed Tucson conference, but a coveted Saturday slot would be better.

When Shumway meets Dr. Saul Roth (David Rogers), the 67-year old Chief of Toxicology at Hill-Matheson, it is evident who is on the way up and who is on the way down.  There is no love loss between Brock and Roth, and Brock warns the young researcher to be wary of the older man.  The director asks the Board to approve more funding and lab space for Shumway, then informs Roth that his funds will be cut dramatically, angering him and setting up one of the conflicts that underscores much of the drama of Secret Order

Prior to the conference, Shumway discovers a problem with the mice and seeks guidance from Brock.  His advice is to give the speech he had prepared, only talking about his results up to the submission deadline.  This is the hinge moment in the play, from which every future action of every character can be traced.  Now Clyman's got us and he doesn't let go until the last word is spoken.  Pandora's Box has been unlocked, opened, and the lid thrown back to release a panoply of thorny subjects to make everybody squirm.

Integrity is the biggie as Shumway gets swept up in the politics and complexities of funding and "publish or perish." Couple that with his search for a father figure (it is mentioned earlier that his own father left the family when the boy was five years old), and it is easy to appreciate his internal tug of war as he does not want to disappoint his mentor Brock, yet receives conflicting counsel from Roth, the other potential surrogate pater.  Shumway is tormented until he acknowledges his flaws and finds his way back to his original scientific quest for truth and order.  Brock's agenda is flawed as well.  A stellar scientist back in the day, he has had "no original thoughts" since turning fifty and his hopes for glory and gain now ride on the younger man's success.

One measure of the playwright's talent is his ability to evolve the characters as events play out.  Shumway enters as a disheveled, shy, gentle soul, fully focused on his research, that which provides the passion in his life.  He learns slowly and painfully how to play the game as his prominence overtakes him.  Brock is the hard-driving type-A personality, seemingly all business and all about himself, yet able to show a somewhat nurturing manner toward Shumway.  Roth presents as a long-suffering schlimazel who is struggling to maintain his position in the pecking order at the expense of his pride, but later mystifies and surprises us when he dons a different cloak.  Undergrad Curiton is bold and brazen in pursuit of her goal to sit in "a broken chair in his [Shumway's] lab" for the summer, like a groupie craving the extreme excitement of his breakthrough work.  Yet she, too, is brilliant and becomes a valued collaborator. 

Shumway, Brock, Roth, and Curiton are all complex characters faced with difficult choices and the situations occurring on the stage are believable as written and acted. Despite some dropped lines, the cast is outstanding across the board.  Whether it is Brock's gruffness and steely glances, Roth's resigned sighs, Shumway's untucked shirt and ruffled hair, or Alice's bull-in-a-china-shop with attitude, they all find ways to climb into the skin of their character and, with a nip here and a tuck there, make a perfect fit.  In many instances the script requires them to interrupt and talk over each other and it is done seamlessly.  While it is also annoying, it serves to illustrate the power plays, especially between Brock and everyone else.  The dialogue is crisp and clear and moves the story quickly from point A to point B, ably aided by slight set changes.  Bill Clarke's design is exceptionally simple, with a thick rectangular slab on a post situated center stage to serve as lab table, office desk, or park bench, depending upon its height or angle.  An overhead screen is used to show slides of R-cells or clouds to evoke the out-of-doors.  The backdrop is a series of opaque panels which enclose the lab or Brock's office, then display silhouetted trees for the park scenes.

While the search for the cure for cancer drives the action in the play, the crux is trying to understand the order of things.  Clyman uses Shumway to explore the scientific order and the role of God, but also makes him a pawn in the high stakes world of cancer research.  Can he figure out how to position himself in that order?  Do the ends justify the means?  One of the major challenges for Shumway and the audience is to solve the puzzle of who is the antagonist, a role that seems to change hands a number of times.  And, just when we think we've got it all worked out, Dr. Roth asks, "Just how real are any of the things we think we know?"  Secret Order is the real thing, but it asks more questions than it answers.  This is theatre that makes you think. 











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