Review: The Doctor Depicts a Modern-Day Witch Hunt Against an Allegedly Racist Physician

Robert Icke returns to Park Avenue Armory with his 2019 adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi.

Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun, Juliet Stevenson, Doña Croll, and Jamie Schwarz appear in The Doctor, written and directed by Robert Icke, at Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory)

Trust the science became a popular mantra during the early days of Covid. And it seemed perfectly logical in the face of a deadly new virus to follow the advice of doctors and public health officials urging us to stay home. But then George Floyd was murdered, and people took to the streets. And many authoritative voices, including doctors, argued that these demonstrations should be excused from prohibitions on large gatherings as white supremacy constituted its own serious public health threat.

Whom does one trust in such moments of confusion? Don’t doctors and scientists also exist in society, impacted by the same disparities and motivated by the same biases as we laypeople? Can there ever be a rationality divorced from identity?

Writer-director Robert Icke’s The Doctor asked these questions in the summer of 2019 during its initial run at London’s Almeida Theatre. And Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi (on which Icke’s play is based) posed similar quandaries in its 1912 debut. Over a century later, this old story arrives at the Park Avenue Armory like a much-needed electric shock, jolting us out of the delirium of the last few years.

John McKay, Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun, and Juliet Stevenson appear in The Doctor, written and directed by Robert Icke, at Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory)

It takes place at the Elizabeth Institute, a private medical establishment founded and directed by Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson). A 14-year-old patient has been admitted with a fatal case of sepsis resulting from a self-administered abortion. The girl’s parents send a Catholic priest (John Mackay) to perform the last rites. But Wolff refuses to admit him, insisting that his presence will only terrify her in her final moments. And when she inevitably dies and goes straight to hell for committing a mortal sin without absolution (according to her own father), the case becomes a cause célèbre for disgruntled Catholics and others fed-up with the arrogance of the liberal professional class. Wolff, a secular Jew, becomes the target of their ire.

Not much of a moral dilemma for a secular and overwhelmingly liberal New York audience, right? And considering that the Catholic Church hasn’t represented a potent political force in Britain since 1689, The Doctor might even strain credulity on its home turf. But what if you learned that the priest is Black and that Wolff laid her hands on him and called him “uppity” as she blocked the door? Would it change the way you perceive this story? Would our heroic Dr. Fauci suddenly begin to look a lot more like Amy Cooper, the Central Park Karen?

These racial dynamics are not immediately apparent in Icke’s slyly heterodox production, which unfashionably employs gender-and-colorblind casting in an age of color-conscious casting. The priest is played by a white actor while the white male lieutenant attempting to usurp Wolff’s position is played (fiendishly and excellently) by Naomi Wirthner, a woman of color. “I’m the most senior person here who isn’t white – who doesn’t look white,” says Murphy (a snarling Daniel Rabin, who most certainly does). Brows furrow in the audience and we wonder if this confrontation might appear even more tense if the line was uttered by a nonwhite actor. It’s a bit like cutting off a finger to prove a point, but the point is vividly made: Despite protests to the contrary, we do see race.

Juliet Stevenson plays Ruth Wolff, and Juliet Garricks plays Charlie in The Doctor, written and directed by Robert Icke, at Park Avenue Armory.
(© Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory)

Every actor commits to this concept, so it is well into the first act before it fully dawns on us that Icke has temporarily given us the gift of being truly colorblind in this play world. For some characters, the mystery remains through the end: Juliet Garricks delivers the most moving performance of the evening as Wolff’s “partner” Charlie, who loses a battle with dementia over the course of the two-hour, 45-minute run. We never know Charlie’s true demographic profile, but we know the love between them is real.

That sincerity contrasts nicely with the cold calculation of Minister Flint (a hilariously sharp, effortlessly cynical Preeya Kalidas), a med school colleague of Wolff’s who has taken the route of politics. “If only you were gay,” she laments to Wolff, searching for a PR win for the embattled doctor by highlighting a diverse aspect of her identity. And again, we’re not entirely sure she’s straight, but Wolff is too proud to ever pull that card to garner sympathy.

A diehard meritocrat, Wolff stands athwart the fashionably repackaged tribalism that constitutes so much critical discourse today, bristling at its squishy language (for a prime example of this, read Pragya Agarwal’s distended program note).

Park Ave Armory
Juliet Stevenson stars in The Doctor, written and directed by Robert Icke, at Park Avenue Armory,
(© Stephanie Berger Photography/Park Avenue Armory)

In a radical departure from Schnitzler’s staid Viennese professor, Stevenson goes full ball-buster, conveying Wolff’s formidable presence with every icy stare and precisely articulated syllable. She is a figure beyond reproach, a woman well-versed in the tactics one must employ to be obeyed in a hospital full of male doctors (perhaps this is why sex is the only identity she puts any stock in). As she gradually loses control of her realm, her rage becomes terrible and magnificent, like that of an unhorsed Shakespearean monarch.

Hildegard Bechtler’s clinical yet posh set design and her medical costumes immediately convey the setting while foregrounding these astonishing performances. Natasha Chivers delivers overhead institutional lighting that suddenly and dramatically transforms to meet the needs of Icke’s free-flowing but lucid staging. Hannah Ledwidge sits high above the stage like a Greek God, underscoring the dramatic action with her chest-pounding percussion (sound and original compositions by Tom Gibbons). All of it adds up to a riveting night at the theater.

Icke is too smart a theatermaker to lay his cards fully on the table, and he devotes ample time to showing how Wolff’s domineering personality has earned her enemies. But through Stevenson’s performance we still recognize her brilliance. And in a particularly powerful bit of visual storytelling, Icke places both Catholic zealots and woke scolds at the same table as they interrogate Professor Wolff on national TV. The message is clear: Even in our allegedly enlightened time, we’re not yet through with inquisitions led by power-hungry mediocrities. And there is no delusion more powerful than that shared by those who know they are on the right side of history.

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The Doctor

Closed: August 19, 2023