Last call: Life-and-death choices, fallible judgment in Taproot's 'The God Committee'

We live in a time of medical miracles. Antibiotics, dialysis, neonatology, robotic surgery, organ transplants: they're life-saving technologies that give humans an almost godlike power. The question is, have we developed the moral structure needed to know when and to whom we should apply those technologies? That is the issue at the center of "The God Committee" currently playing at Taproot Theatre.

The play is set in a hospital board room on a rowdy St. Patrick's Day in New York. Though the streets are filled with boisterous revelers, and the hospital's own public address system periodically breaks forth with rollicking Irish music, the matter before the seven professionals in the conference room is solemn indeed.

A human heart is being rushed to the hospital where a handful of dying patients are waiting for a transplant. Their fate rests on the decision made in that room. Which one of them will be chosen to receive the life-saving organ? The heart that's on its way has only a few hours of life in it. There's not a lot of time for extended deliberation.

Each of the patients presents a complement of conditions or situations that would make him or her either the best prospect for the transplant or an unsuitable one. Each of the decision makers brings a complement of personal traits, experiences and preconceived notions to the decision-making process that will influence the choice.

The play demands its audience to confront the question of playing God. Can we as individuals or as a society be fair in making the life-and-death decisions that modern medicine puts before us? How are mere humans to weigh the value of one life over another? How can any of us put aside the preconceptions that prejudice our thinking?

It's heady stuff, and well worth considering. This is an issue to which we all should give more thought. It should be a frequent topic in our media and a component of our education. I love the fact that Taproot chose to address it. I wasn't crazy about the play.

The playwright, Mark St. Germain, has a message, and he uses every trick in his bag to lay it on the audience. His characters give lectures and statistics on organ transplants and the networks that make them possible. These are facts that surely needn't be rehearsed for the panel of doctors and social workers sitting around the table. But the cast members aren't really speaking to each other. They are educating the audience.

The patients who are being assessed seem to be a textbook sample selected to exemplify "issues typically considered." There's the fat African American man, the man with AIDS and no support structure, the possible druggy, the old lady who attempted suicide, the poor blood-and-tissue match, the prospective father.

The decision makers are more stereotypes than real people. The mean, misanthropic heart surgeon is complemented by the kind and loving doctor. The psychiatrist is an emotional wreck who should be in therapeutic care instead of making therapeutic decisions. The nurse is the underling who really gets things done, and the social worker is there to offer comic relief. The priest/lawyer is everyman, asking the questions that might be asked by any of us, but we have to wonder how everyman can just walk in on this life-and-death deliberation.

Despite its weighty topic, this is a theater piece filled with really funny lines. But the humor is a series of one-liners thrown in for laughs rather than being integrated into the substance of the play.

So, it's a flawed play on a profound topic. Under Scott Nolte's direction, Taproot's actors make the best of it. It's not easy to turn the characters from stereotypes into real persons.

A standout in the cast is Candace Vance as the idealistic young resident. She's convincingly intelligent and outraged despite her utter exhaustion after almost 48 hours on duty. Philip Davidson is good as Dr. Klee, the kindly but surprisingly devious surgeon fighting his personal life-and-death battle. Marquam Krantz as the play's merry prankster delivers his one-liners well. Don Brady as Dr. Gorman and Pam Nolte as the psychiatrist make a valiant effort to create real people from the cardboard characters they've been given, but the task is too daunting.

Mark Lund's institutional-gray boardroom is all too familiar, and his sound effects are a fine addition to the production. The evening begins with a darkened stage and the sound of a car crash, then an ambulance's siren, followed by the beat of a heart monitor, finally the continuous stream of sound that indicates death. It's a good device, as are the strains of bagpipe and other festive Irish noise that periodically filter in from outside the hospital walls.

If you like the hospital dramas you see on TV, you'll probably like this despite its flaws. It's got tense moments, interpersonal struggles, characters to like and dislike, and a lot to think about.

Those of us who aren't completely naïve recognize that personal justifications, desires and prejudices influence decision making from the halls of national government to the local church. One wants to believe that the medical system works at least a little better than that. The author adds a shocker at the end of his play to convince you that, at this point in history, it just isn't so. If only he had been more subtle in putting forth the message.

'The God Committee'

Taproot Theatre

204 N. 85th St.

Wednesdays-Saturdays through March 3

Tickets: $25 to $32 (senior and student discounts available) 781-9707 or Ticketmaster, 293-ARTS

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