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The Living
Review by Terri Roberts, Back Stage West, January 28, 1999

A show about the Black Plague of 1665 and its relentless decimation of London scarcely sounds like the subject with which one wants to start off a new year. Yet as the title suggests, Anthony Clarvoe’s The Living — now receiving it Los Angeles premiere at the Colony Studio Theatre — does not dwell on the millions of souls who died in the devastation of that century’s most horrific scourge. Rather, it holds up the few brave ones who risked infection themselves to stay behind and do what little could be done.

Here the intrepid Colony offers a stunning production of Clarvoe’s thought-provoking script, which not only celebrates the strength of courage and compassion in a climate of overwhelming fear, but has a clear parallel in this country’s muddled response to the dire beginning of the AIDS crisis.

By the time the Plague reached epidemic proportions, the King and his court, as well as most clergy and physicians, had deserted London and left its poor to fend for themselves. Sir John Lawrence (John Ross Clark), a merchant with the until-then honorary title of Lord Mayor, was left to assume control of the city. Staying behind as well were his friend and personal physician, Dr. Edward Harman (David Carey Foster); a non-conformist minister, the Reverend Dr. Thomas Vincent (Silas Cooper), and a scientist named John Graunt (Kelly Foran), whose interest in statistics and trends helped to predict the spread of the disease. It is Graunt who tells the tale, and the widow Sarah Chandler (Alison Shanks) who humanizes the story. These five show unfathomable courage in a time where the slightest human contact could lead to excruciating death.

Here the Colony again demonstrates why they’re one of the strongest Waiver theatres around. Director David Rose, who last year helmed the company’s acclaimed production of Our Country’s Good, finds the humor and humanity in The Living, and does not stay overly long in the darkness. Clark and Cooper give us gut-wrenching determination, and Foster nicely balances both the fear and commitment to, his job. Foran is straightforward in his approach and almost giddy with excitement at determining the direction of the disease. Shanks is a strong-willed Sarah, and D. Ewing Woodruff plays Lord Brounker, the representative of the King’s court, to pompous perfection.

If there is any quibble to be made, it is with Ruth Judkowitz’s somewhat over-bearing sound design and the unchanging cleanliness of A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s otherwise on-target costumes. After endless days of tending the sick and dying, one would hardly look as fresh and well-pressed as these people manage to be.

Still, The Living is a reminder of what can be done when all seems hopeless. And at the end of it all, it is Graunt who finally reaches out to make a single gesture of humanity no one else had dared. It is a heartbreaking — and hope filled — moment of mercy. 

Copyright 1999 Back Stage West
Reprinted with Permission
The Living at the Colony Theatre