Love and war

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  April 25, 2006

Jennie Israel is also unusually cast as Helena, but she brings a sharp serenity to the righteous stalker. Allyn Burrows is deliciously dejected as found-out military popinjay Parolles — who with exposure turns from trimmed-down Falstaff into Poor Tom. Ellen Adair is a lovely Diana (the Florentine woman Bertram thinks he seduces), and Bobbie Steinbach, in the dual roles of no-moss-on-me elderly lord Lafew and Diana’s mother, proves again that she has the best comic timing in Boston. The songs, when rendered by the better singers, lend a piquant counterpoint to the banana peels.

The human mind is as unfathomable as the human heart, and some of the voyages charted by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks are as fantastical as those of Pericles. As theatrical, too, it would seem. Sacks’s Awakenings was the basis for both Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska and an Oscar-nominated film. Then in 1994, director Peter Brook and his writer collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, created the “theatrical research” The Man Who, which Nora Theatre Company is giving its New England premiere (at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through May 7), from Sacks’s 1985 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. A victim of visual agnosia, that man-who is represented, along with 16 other brain-injured individuals, in this at once clinical and mysterious theater piece that conjures the territory between imagination and neurological disorder and quietly catalogues the courage it takes to live there.

Wesley Savick directs the piece with a sort of dry compassion, and its effect is accumulative. Four actors take the antiseptic stage — a white square containing a glass table, a couple of silver chairs, and some props and video equipment — trading off roles as patients and interviewing doctors (in which guise they wear white coats over their gray slacks and shirts). There’s the autistic man who screams at a doctor’s touch, then carefully takes the touch back and replaces it on his arm as if it were a material thing. There’s the man who has been in a mental hospital for 27 years with memory that apparently evaporates at an instant. There’s the man who can propel his body only by visually concentrating on every movement, thus losing the “freedom” to think and dream. There’s the man who’s connected to a lost, loved past through the Persian songs playing in his head. There’s the man who responds keenly to beauty but has lost the use of sensible language, reading Gray’s “Elegy” with cadenced grandeur but sounding like Finnegans Wake. And there’s the man who’s enslaved by his Tourette’s tics but, having wondered, “Why me?”, acknowledges that we all must all learn to live with ourselves.

THE MAN WHO: You might leave wondering about your own perception.The Man Who comprises 80 minutes of fascinating, terrifying stage time that leaves you wondering whether majority perception is necessarily correct perception and admiring those who soldier bravely in the minority camp. Contributing to the eye- and mind-opening experience are the sensitive, sometimes heartbreaking, but never “crazy” performances of Steven Barkhimer, Robert Bonotto, Owen Doyle, and Jim Spencer.

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