It doesn’t, though. Nor could it, or should it. The latest Realwheels Theatre production, running until March 22 at the historic Cultch theatre, makes this uncomfortably clear. Even over two hours, with a masterful script, and talented directing and cast, there is no abbreviating the question: does a rational individual have ownership over his or her own body…even if it leads to death?
When the theatre company’s Artistic Director James Sanders stumbled upon Brian Clark’s controversial play two decades ago, he made a note to come back to it. Today, with the play successfully showing on the Vancouver stage—and missing only the element of Sanders himself, who was forced to bow out due to health-related issues— the question couldn’t be more relevant.
Just this past week, the National Post reported on a provocative new article in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, which asked whether suicide could ever be a rational choice, or “a decision made under free will, in the absence of any diagnosable mental illness and with full appreciation for the potential consequences?”
In the study, Dr. Angela Ho, a University of Toronto psychiatry resident remarks that society’s view that death is “the greatest of harms” ignores a different possibility: that intolerable psychological suffering may be just as harmful.
Ken Harrison, the lead character in Whose Life is it Anyway? would agree. Having spent the past five months in a hospital bed after a paralysing car accident, Harrison (Bob Frazer) struggles to make a connection between the man he is, and the man his body has become. (It doesn’t help that many of the hospital staff treat Harrison, who now has a fragile body, as a fragile and fragile-minded man.)
Perhaps to his own detriment, but to the great relief of the audience, Harrison copes with a mix of dry humour and cynical wit.
“Hospitals are weird places,” he notes, early in the first act. “Broken necks are acceptable, but a wrinkled sheet…”
Yet beneath the clean punchlines and sterile aquamarine set—hospital corners neatly tucked, bottles perked up against a wall and, at center stage, a stationary patient bed—lies a mess of top-down industry standards, failed connections and subjective good intentions.
For every line spoken, there are several innuendos; for each conversation that occurs between characters—patient and nurse, doctor and doctor, doctor and lawyer—there are far too many that don’t. Despite his limited movement, Harrison, a former sculptor who now finds himself a quadriplegic, never truly rests. And so, neither does the audience.
The peering in on a stationary, speaking, sleeping, suffering man in his private (read: center stage) bed in his personal hospital room, isn’t the uncomfortable part. It’s realizing that, for a set that revolves entirely around the patient, very little of the outcome is actually in his hands. Doctors and social workers stream in and out, but most of the decisions are made in a medical Mt. Olympus outside of the room, presumably with the help of the horrifying binder entitled “Ken Harrison.” Tellingly, the patient’s chart is at his feet, exactly where he can never see it.
Throughout the play, the main issue, an individual’s right to die versus our society’s right to maintain life, couldn’t be more obviously spelled out. (Indeed, some of the arguments are so simple and cliche, they seem almost dated.) Yet other problematic matters frequently come to the forefront: Should doctors be cheering up patients with mentions of unproven scientific advances? Is there an imbalance of focus on paperwork over patient-work? And then there are the not-so-subtle hints of sexual harassment.
In the end, the audience is left to ponder much more than a captivating performance and the mechanics behind a visually stunning (and metaphorically apt) set. If there is any downfall, it’s in the slight disconnect between the particular play and Realwheels’ mandate: to “produce performances that deepen the audience’s understanding of the disability experience.”
Whose Life is it Anyway? is not about the disability experience. It’s about a disability experience. This is especially important when it comes to the right to die debate. Just as the able-bodied experience, the disability experience lies in the personal nuances—and not in a nutshell.
Whose Life is it Anyway? plays nightly at The Cultch theatre until March 22.
Missed the play? Check out the movie, Whose Life is it Anyway? (1981), starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Although SCI BC does not take an official position on the right to die debate, we have written about it in the past. Head to “BC Law Against Assisted Suicide Deemed “Unconstitutional” – What do you think?” for a closer look at the assisted suicide conversation in Canada. Plus, share your own opinions in the comment section below.