The Flid Show
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
January 28, 2005
Certainly one of the most captivating characteristics of high-quality theatre is when a writer tackles a subject from as many perspectives as possible. Richard Willett, in his play The Flid Show, does exactly that. Willett provides his audience with a very well balanced reflection on the Thalidomide tragedy, one of the pharmaceutical industry’s most well known blunders. And to make the show even more intriguing, it stars a Thalidomide survivor.
The story centers around Duncan Mowbray, a nightclub singer who only sings songs from 1962, the year he was born. That is also the year that Thalidomide was banned for causing severe birth defects. Both of Duncan’s arms are about a foot long and he has no thumbs. (Note: This is a description of the actor playing Duncan. There is an arbitrary line between the birth defects of the character and those of the actor.) He has a somewhat co-dependent relationship with his sister, Brenda, who is constantly trying to set him up on blind dates. Duncan is visited by a series of “ghosts of Thalidomide past” who take him to various points in his childhood and also reveal their roles in Thalidomide history. All the while, Duncan tries to maintain a budding relationship with a pediatrician named Rachel.
Willett weaves a beautiful tapestry of theatrical conventions in this two-hour long journey through history, tragedy, and one man’s life. He employs time hops and time traveling characters, reenactments, direct audience address, and voiceovers. Willett shows us the whole range of people whose lives were touched by this drug, from the mothers who took it to the doctors who pushed it. It's clear that the playwright has thoroughly researched the history of Thalidomide but he never lets the play degrade into a history lesson. Also, considering the subject, it doesn’t fall into the trappings of over-sentimentality. Sure, there is some pretty heavy emotional content but I didn’t feel hit over the head.
Despite the time hops, I found the play easy to follow because Willett cleverly uses Duncan’s relationship with his new girlfriend as a fixed point from which we can see his transformation from beginning, middle to end. However, halfway through the play I realized that I didn’t have a clear sense of why Duncan was being shown his childhood. Willett does make it adequately clear by the end, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was a little too sudden and neat. What emerges as abundantly clear is that tragedy, much like truth, can be relative. They say we show who we are when we are at our lowest point. Willett shows us those who rose up to meet the challenge of their handicap, those who took their lives in defeat, those who crusaded against the drug, and those who refused to even believe it was harmful. The playwright’s brilliance shines brightest when he’s giving us the good and bad of every perspective. One of the most notable examples is the fact that Thalidomide is now being used to help people survive organ transplants.
The cast is an outstanding ensemble lead by British actor Mat Fraser. Fraser takes the character of Duncan and wrings it for every drop of passion and honesty that he can get out of it. Fraser is charming and charismatic and he has a soothing singing voice that immediately puts the audience in his corner. I found myself forgetting that this role was not written by or for Fraser because it seems like the story of his life. I would venture to say that it is indeed the role of his lifetime. Karen Walsh is excellent as Duncan’s compassionate sister Brenda and Christa Scott-Reed is incredibly focused and interesting as the mother unable to forgive herself. Kim Donovan pours her heart into Rachel, Duncan’s girlfriend, and Debbie Lee Jones grew on me as the first “ghost” from the past who takes him back to view his childhood. However, I was most impressed with Amy Staats’s moving and unforgettable performance as the other two time traveling characters. The rest of the cast, Michael Anderson, James Thomas, Harley Adams, and Alison Adams, all have moments where they shine brilliantly.
Director Eliza Beckwith does an excellent job evoking the assortment of worlds of this play. I particularly liked the reenactment scene with its heightened sense of reality. In this scene, she keeps her actors right at the border of farce but never allows them to cross the line. I thought it was an interesting choice to show Duncan completely naked. Perhaps this is to satisfy the audience’s curiosity as to whether or not Duncan (or Fraser for that matter) has any other defects. Beckwith held me in the world of the play until the entrance of the actor playing Duncan as an adolescent who has his elbows shoved into long sleeves and his hands on his chest. Possibly a more stylized approach would help here. Kim B. Walker does a terrific job creating costumes that span several decades. Aaron Mooney’s lighting design produces attention-grabbing movement on stage and supports the various settings very well.
Ultimately, the wonderful ensemble coupled with Willett’s well rounded approach makes The Flid Show an unforgettable experience.