[miss]: An Uncompromising Woman
By William Newkirk
Directed by Chuck Dent
Starring Nikki Darden Creston and Alma J. Hill
Playwrights Round Table
Presented at the Orlando Shakespeare Center
Disclaimer: I have been involved in the development and production of this play.
It’s tough to put science on stage without it turning into a lecture or a backdrop for a romance. Author Newkirk avoids either pitfall and delivers an excellent, in depth look at how scientific reality comes to be. In the post war era, women were presumed incapable of scientific rigor, but Dr. Frances Kelsey (Creston) accidently gets offered a PHD scholarship and a job at the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA is supposed to keep the pharmaceutical companies slightly honest, there’s a review process in place that doesn’t verify the claims made for new drugs, just that aren’t actually poisonous. In principle the review should dig deeper, but as we repeatedly hear from the drug guys Dr. Murray (Russell Trahan) and Dr. Pogge (Jeff Hole) “That’s how the game is played.” That pair work for Merrill, maker of tonight’s drug in question Kevadon. It seems a miracle: it’s a sedative that you can’t OD on, it suppresses morning sickness, and it even helps kids with poor school work. Dr. Kelsey’ issue concerns the paperwork; it just sounds like ad copy. With her low social standing (she specialized in rectal enema approvals) the Merrill guys have it in for her but she holds her ground. “Where are all the bad babies?” demands Dr. Murray in the show’s climax, and it IS a valid question. Those deformed feti hide behind slow reporting from overseas, and when the show ends, Dr. Kelsey wins an amazing victory. Not only is she vindicated for her stubbornness, she demonstrates that the scientific method really DOES produce important results that apply to all of us every day.
Leading this strong cast is Nikki Creston’s gently persistent scientist. Her path is guided by facts and educated hunches drawn from years of biochemical study. Her secretary, assistant and sounding board is Gertrude Helfer (Ms. Alma J. Hill.) She bucks up moral, does the grunt paper work, and probably was smart enough to do her own drug approvals. On the side of evil we have the normally nice Russel Trahan as the face of Merrill to Kelsey, and his even more evil side kick Jeff Hole. When things are really down for these guys, I think: “Trahan is going to put that telephone through his head!” He wields A REAL telephone, not one of these wussy iPad thingies. The human face of Merrill comes from Hayes Schardt. and Deena Flowers as the “Pill Girls.” Their job is pushing doctors to prescribe Merrill’s latest product. Flowers was fluffy and willing to follow orders while Shard felt more skeptical and ultimately felt the blow of her own uninformed actions.
This show hits on all cylinders: the plot is tight and tense, the science clear and relevant, and the heroine a true role model. The subtext here feels clear and timely: rules and agencies are not just created to vex profits and stifle innovation; they also protect the masses from the bad science by holding the pill producers to high technical standards. VERY hard to see this play; it’s selling out fast.
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