Brother Courage

Miracle Mile

By Clark Middleton (with Robert Knopf)
Directed by Michael Warren Powell
42nd Street Workshop/The Lab Theater Company
424 W. 42nd St. (358-5041)
Equity showcase (closes Sept. 28)
Review by Marshall Yaeger

Clark Middleton, an acting protégé of Geraldine Page, along with his co-writer and director, extracted nobility from disability in a one-man show for which no understudy need apply.

Commanding the stage like an agile marionette (albeit one whose strings don't quite all work), Mr. Middleton tells the story of his life in a body that was deeply affected, but unravaged, by life-threatening juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

The words "indomitable courage" would not have been inappropriate in this play. Fortunately, the evening never sank into the maudlin. There were, however, touching moments of deep emotion-as when the actor struggles to pronounce the word courage in an audition scene. The choice would have been wrong for a fictional account. It rang perfectly true here.

Middleton manifested unusual flair for dramatizing the oddball characters in his life. With a head pinioned by the stasis of disease, and a body hampered from punctuating lines, Middleton discovered ingenious ways to push his body and the sound of his words with immaculately timed lung power, often with amusing results in a script that would have otherwise been weak. Thus Middleton played "To be or not to be" passingly well while sitting in a chair; but he came into his own while dancing (sound by Cheryl Smith) in the spastic style of the hip and the cool, at which times he appeared quite normal. Only the connective tissues of the play, like those in Mr. Middleton's body, sometimes functioned through determination alone. For example, a highway into Tucson's dry climate stretched a long way to provide a title for the show.

Middleton tells the story of how, from age four, he had to reinvent an Elmer Fudd-like head and body into a handsome dude with facial hair and polyester shirts: a man whose loss of virginity after 22 years took a mere 30 seconds. Deborah Constantine's superior lighting design (illuminating Eric Lowell Renschler's simple but elegant set) included slide projections from Middleton's childhood and early 20s, as well as more recent X-rays of various body parts that revealed the inner actor of the present-a reincarnated Elmer Fudd.

Abused from the earliest stages of ill health by a medical science baffled by his disease, greedy for health insurance, and ignorant of his humanity, he finally found a doctor who would help him tie his shoe laces (a task he couldn't do for 20 years) and also cure him. "I'm your hip man,"says the medical savior ready to replace two hips that don't work.

"Yo!" says Middleton.

"No, not that kind of hip doctor!"

Meanwhile, rejected in love, he discovered that his proper arena for hope and affirmation was the theatre. Fueled by his teacher's faith in the artistic value of his expressive body, he eventually was able to extract the "toothache in his bones" to soar on wings of gentle, poignant memory and vivid imagination.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 1
Lighting 2/Sound 1

Copyright 1997 Marshall Yaeger