Many think horticultural concepts can’t be combined with those of mass murder. I’ve got news for those people. It’s been done by the Bridge Players Theater Company in Burlington, NJ. In fact, they melded the two extremely well this May in their production of Ira Levin’s disturbing piece Dr. Cook’s Garden.
The play itself premiered in September of 1967. At that time America entered a period of deep introspection. The Civil Rights Movement had begun, people questioned our involvement in Viet Nam, and the ‘Summer of Love’ just occurred. During this era our nation re-examined many concepts that once seemed sacrosanct. In this sense, Dr. Cook’s Garden reflected the questioning nature of the time period.
The Bridge Players Production featured Fran Pederson in the role of Dr. Jim Tennyson. Like many in those days, the draft board summoned him to report for examination. He needed to obtain childhood medical records to excuse him from serving in the military. This led him to visit his home town of Greenfield Center, Vermont. He met with his mentor and local doctor Dr. Leonard Cook, played by Bob Beaucheane, to acquire them.
Citing medical issues from childhood to avoid military service may sound ethically dubious. As the play went on I realized that plot point merely a teaser. The moral ambiguity kept coming. In the course of the visit Dr. Tennyson spoke with the doctor’s housemaid and his nurse. (Played by Marti Palmieri and Regina Deavitt.) Dr. Tennyson learned that many people he knew before leaving for medical school had died. He became suspicious. Upon speaking with the doctor’s gardener (played by Mike McCollum) and investigating his records, Dr. Tennyson suspected that Dr. Cook may have been killing his patients. He confronted the man with these allegations.
The real drama then commenced. Pederson delivered accusations with assurance and conviction. Beauchane’s reserved, laconic assertions of innocence had this reviewer convinced he did nothing wrong. At least until he calmly admitted he did.
Then the drama went into overdrive. Pederson and Beaucheane played off each other exceptionally well. In the course of their argument they debated Dr. Cook’s faith that his “removals” turned Greenfield Center into an ideal community. Dr. Tennyson rebutted that murder couldn’t be justified in the interest of bettering society. The moral arguments kept coming along with an exceptional plot twist. At times I didn’t know if I was watching theater or hearing a disquisition on philosophy. I quickly realized the latter wouldn’t have engrossed me such. Kudos to Pederson and Beaucheane. They presented a scene that could’ve been pedantic and made it engaging.
Beaucheane also served as the lighting director on this project. He used his dual roles to outstanding effect. One scene in Dr. Cook’s examination room really grabbed me. While speaking to someone on the phone he expressed concern that his nemesis had a terminal illness. The dim illumination made Beaucheane appear dark and sinister. Through the performance’s early scenes his warm tone of voice and laid back mannerisms resembled those of a devoted town doctor. Due to lighting and superb acting ability he transformed into the Angel of Death.
I also enjoyed the way the Bridge Players Theater Company established the scene. Before the show and during intermission, they played 1960’s Rock and Roll over the loudspeakers. The peace symbol Mike McCollum wore on his forehead added an authentic reference to the era, as well.
Dr. Cook’s Garden is the greatest masterpiece I’d never heard of. In the playbill Director Alice Weber wrote, “I hope you agree with me that Dr. Cook’s Garden raises some difficult questions, and I hope it makes you think a little bit as you make your way home.” It sure did. The more I contemplate the myriad ethical issues raised in the play I think about it even more. The show runs through May 16th.