Thursday evening I saw Secret Order at the San Jose Repertory. My guest and I were really interested to see just exactly how a “biomedical thriller” would play out on stage. After finding out that playwright Bob Clyman is also a clinical psychologist, we’ve been looking forward to this show for a few months now.
When Dr. Shumway, a relatively obscure and naïve cancer researcher, is thrust into the high-stakes world of science, the notion of noble “truth-seeking” is dissected with a scalpel’s precision. Shumway is in over his head when he and a young student researcher get swept up in the dangerous world of political maneuvering, corporate loyalty and scientific ethics…
I am not sure I would really use the word “thriller” or even “dangerous” to describe this show, but it definitely delves into the politics of scientific research and fundraising, and the moral implications that follow when research depends on funding, and funding requires results. The play shows that the relationship between funding and research is a symbiotic one, yet also quite dysfunctional when the elements of time and results are thrown in.
There are no real “bad guys” in this play, just characters who make wrong choices, sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes with questionable motives. “Altruism vs. Capitalism,” state the dramaturgy notes in the program, but this does not mean that Capitalism is the bad guy either – these days the altruism of research does not exist without capitalism. And this is what makes for a great morality tale.
There are a few depressing points made in this show, one being that an actual cure for cancer is considered somewhat of a fairytale by “Old Science”. Old Science vs. New Science is another theme of the show, and in this play Old Science wins that argument. Old Science also wins the entire game in the end, and if we go back to Altruism vs. Capitalism, Altruism also comes out the loser.
When the play ends there is a feeling of helplessness. The show makes clear the vicious circle of research needing funding needing results, and no results equals no funding equals no research. And Time is the enemy of all.
The play is excellently acted, with my favorite being Julian López-Morillas as Saul Roth. I last saw López-Morillas in the Spring production of Sonia Flew; he left quite an impression on me and is fantastic in this somewhat understated role as well. But is Saul Roth a villain? Or just the voice of Reality? Watch and you can decide for yourself.
The real star of this show (for me) is the set design and background projections. Varying between art deco, 60s modern and ultra scientific, the constantly changing projections did a great job of quickly changing scenes from a scientific lab, to an office with a view, to an auditorium, and finally to a beautiful outdoor park. Techno music sometimes accompanied the moving projections and your attention was always captured, wondering what formation of color blocks and pictures would show up next. The complicated multi-level stage set up was also quite beautiful, and sitting near the front I wondered what kind of experience the audience in the balcony was having – I would bet their view of the entire set was even more amazing than mine. The set sponsor was Billy Berk’s, and I’m going to make a point of eating dinner there soon to thank them for their generosity in making this possible.
But there is another reason to see this show. The San Jose Repertory is working with the Valley Medical Center Foundation to help provide free breast health screenings for underserved women at the Sobrato Cancer Center. A portion of the proceeds from the October 14th performance were given to the foundation, and after every performance the actors accept donations at the doors to support this cause. So bring some cash or your checkbook with you to help support this worthy cause. Also, patrons who visit the Box Office wearing pink in support of breast cancer awareness will save $6 off the regular ticket price (one discount per person) to any Tuesday – Thursday evening performance.
October 14 – November 7, 2010
by Robert Clyman
directed by Chris Smith
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio