You might remember the headlines from March: “New York Hospitals Overwhelmed.” “Doctors Say Shortage of Protective Gear Is Dire.” “Coronavirus Victims Are Dying Alone.”
They’re harrowing words to read, of course, but reports from another coast in cool black and white can seem a little … over there. Sometimes it takes the illusion of theater to make something real.
For “The Line,” playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed real health care workers in New York City (nurses, doctors, a paramedic, a manager at a nursing home) and wrote a script that feels like an hour of dropping in on raw but well-curated Zoom calls. In its best moments, it’s a direct and intimate portal from your world to theirs, screen to screen.
And, because for many of us the past few months have been an involuntary master class in communicating through screens, Blank and Jensen’s drama can feel even more visceral and immediate than a pre-COVID, in-person play.
Does it matter that “The Line” is a faraway New York production, courtesy of The Public Theater? Not to you. The internet, along with coronavirus lockdowns, has further flattened the world, so “The Line” is streaming for free at publictheater.org through Aug. 4. The view from rural Snohomish County is just as good as the one from Lower Manhattan.
Through their screens, the seven characters address us directly, from their respective environments. We’re invited into the cramped, bike-mounted-on-the-wall apartment of Oscar (John Ortiz), a charming and cheerful EMT from Queens. Then we get to visit with Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), a friendly but no-nonsense manager at a nursing home where, we’ll soon learn, COVID-19 swiftly wiped out half the population. We huddle with first-year resident physician Jennifer (Alison Pill) in some nook of an intensive care unit, where she introduces herself by saying: “Sorry. Talking to you, I’m a little bit anxious. We’re not supposed to talk to anyone.”
None of them are composite characters, and we feel that in their distinct moods: Jennifer speaks with clipped, cold rage about watching a system fail her patients; Oscar chats like we’re his buddy; and Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), a nurse from Trinidad who works at a cancer hospital, is disarmingly earnest and vulnerable.
But their stories — which sometimes feel like testimonials, as if they’re answering a subpoena — follow similar arcs, answering the same questions: Where are you from? Why did you get into medicine? When did coronavirus first reveal itself? Then how bad did it get?
This last question gets the most vivid treatment, with awful postcards from across the city: blood spurting over hospital floors from a relentless succession of intubations; families barred from the rooms where their loved ones lay dying; doctors, out of equipment, improvising CPAP machines (to provide a steady flow of oxygen to patients) with a tube of air, another tube filled with water, the contraption taped to an oxygen nozzle in the wall.
The usually indefatigable Oscar says so many patients needed care, EMTs were given a strict cutoff of 20 minutes for CPR. One man came back at minute 19 (“yo we’ve got a rhythm!” Oscar crows), only to be taken to a hospital where he couldn’t be admitted — there were no beds left. The man died on Oscar’s stretcher.
“Before COVID I had maybe 10-15 cardiac arrests for the whole year,” he says. “But one week I had 13 deaths that week. I mean I’m used to seeing death and stuff, but in that amount? It was just catchin’ bodies.”
A paramedic named Ed (Jamey Sheridan) had worked under fire, on the front lines of Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. “But it only lasted three days,” he says. “COVID lasted weeks, and it’s invisible … you look at a door handle, you look at your phone.” He then talks about health care workers he knew who’ve recently committed suicide.
The characters are angry, too, at slow-footed hospital administrators, or managers who send in a token grief counselor a month after the crisis, or all the empty virtue signaling from politicians and corporations eager to call health care workers heroes.
“If you really want to help doctors, and show them appreciation, give their patients health care, you know?” says Vikram (Arjun Gupta), a doctor who cleanly diagnosed the COVID crisis as not just a disease, but a symptom. From a lesser actor, the speech might land pedantically, but Gupta — like “The Line” as a whole — makes everything feel as open and tender as a wound.
“I can’t tell you the last time a white person has delivered a GrubHub or Seamless to my door,” he says. “Through this whole thing, our economy has been on the backs of the black and brown people who couldn’t escape that vulnerability. And that’s been happening for a long, long time. And we caught one aspect of it on a video, and that woke up millions of people. Right? But with medicine there is no video.”
No, there isn’t an equivalent to that document of George Floyd’s killing. But “The Line,” a collection of thinly dramatized stories from people who watched the death up close, is a start.
Closer to home
While online theater has temporarily pushed geography closer to obsolescence (Chicago is New Orleans is Orlando is Bremerton), you can find online performances made closer to home.
And there are evergreen, closer-to-local options, both livestreamed and archived: OntheBoards.tv; Town Hall Seattle; and the Northwest Streaming Arts Hub (NASH), which keeps slowly adding to its collection of music, comedy, theater and more.