By Ben Brantly
New York Times May 5th 1995
It is hard to imagine a more fitting requiem for an acting teacher than “Extraordinary Measures,” a performance piece written and directed by Eve Ensler, with music by William Harper, at the Here theater complex.
Inspired by the final days of Paul Walker, a theater director, performer and instructor who died of AIDS in 1993, the work presents death as the ultimate class in life study.
The hospital room in which Mr. Walker lies unconscious, kept alive by medical support systems (the “extraordinary measures” of the title), becomes a forum in which his brother, friends and former students individually address the man, struggling to find emotional truth before a mentor who can no longer confirm or question their feelings.
All of these people, as well as Mr. Walker himself, are portrayed by the magnetically vital James Lecesne, who is currently embodying enough characters on New York stages to populate a small village. (“Word of Mouth,” his one-man show, also directed by Ms. Ensler, opens officially at the Promenade Theater on Monday.) At its sharpest, “Extraordinary Measures” provides a sense of what W. H. Auden described in his elegy to W. B. Yeats: the ways in which the dead are appropriated and transformed by the living. “The current of his feeling failed,” wrote Auden; “he became his admirers.”
A friend who had nursed Mr. Walker through the eight years of his illness jealously observes the actresses who come to visit him, speculating that they will use the situation for “source emotions” for playing Juliet and Lady Macbeth.
An elderly night school student memorably puts to use Mr. Walker’s dictum that the great dramas in life happen when people are eating by consuming a plate of kugel as she recites from “The Three Sisters.” Another friend, well versed in New Age jargon, complains to Mr. Walker, “I feel unprocessed blockage between us.”
The play is shrewd and clear-sighted in examining the self-centeredness and competitiveness that often surface in the face of death. One character speaks of being moved to share “inappropriate secrets” in the waiting room to establish his superior claim to friendship. And Mr. Walker’s brother, Terry, the work’s most touchingly realized character, must deal with the objections of those who see little point in prolonging the man’s life by artificial means.
The very real moral issue implicit here is resolved a bit too tidily, and the corresponding progression from denial to transcendent acceptance feels strained. Moreover, Mr. Walker himself remains largely an abstraction, remembered in elegiac statements that might have come from a memorial service, despite scenes that give painfully empathetic life to the unspeakable fears of a dying man. (A Joycean monologue of remembered sexual pleasures doesn’t work at all.)
“Extraordinary Measures” does, however, have exceptional moments, nicely enhanced by Mr. Harper’s score, which evokes everything from Southern spirituals to Irish chanteys, sung with haunted beauty by Mr. Lescene and an otherworldly trio of women. One scene, in particular, glows with a distinctive, truly mystical poetry, as Mr. Walker recalls that his father jubilantly described him as a fish when he was born, and realizes that he is now metamorphosing through illness into a scaly, fishlike creature.
Death-bed scenes are never easy, and to be assigned a series of them, as Mr. Lecesne has been, seems like cruel and unusual punishment. Though he is masterly in distinguishing one character from another, he is a little too tirelessly “on,” and the performance needs further modulation.
But there is also the affecting sense that this actor is working through his own personal catharsis, as Ms. Ensler has doubtless done in creating the play. If “Extraordinary Measures,” like its characters, cannot always find a voice to match the profundity of its subject, it is impossible not to be stirred by the emotional urgency behind it.
EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES Written and directed by Eve Ensler; music composed by William Harper; set by Bradley Wester; lighting by Michael Chybowski; costumes by Donna Zakowska; sound by Richard Jansen. Presented by Music-Theater Group, and Home for Contemporary Theater and Art. At Here, 145 Avenue of the Americas, at Spring Street, SoHo. WITH: James Lecesne, Jeannine Otis, Serafina Martino and Christine Sperry.