Like many of the patrons last night, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Anatomy of Gray. I mean, I had loose associations with famous medical texts (which I have never even paged through) and loose associations with an early 2000s saucy medical TV drama (which I have never even watched more then three or four minutes of), so my mind was mostly open. And, of course, an open mind is the best seat in any house.
I believe in fables. I believe in their power to do a lot of work in only a little time, and to do complex, beautiful things in a way that’s simple, accessible, palatable, enjoyable. At the top of the show, June (played by Nykeigh Larson) sets the tone and we know at once that the play is going to be an oral tradition-style tale, told from the perspective of a child.
The elements of fable kick in right away as the events begin to unfold in a sort of inverted chord of The Wizard of Oz. There’s a storm (Homer even essentially has the line “it’s a twista!”). There’s a little girl who is looking for her missing dog. There’s the expansively boring American Middle West. And there’s a hot air balloon that the residents of Gray, Indiana probably assumed could have come directly from Oz or someplace even stranger like Paris. And on that balloon is a wizard of sorts. But his magic is modern medicine.
If those ingredients had been added in a different order and stirred a different direction, we could have expected Munchkins and flying monkeys and songs about rainbows, but that’s where the fable decides to remain grounded in a 19th century world that, to an imaginative, passionate, vivacious young female narrator looked very, very gray indeed.
The small cast boasts plenty of talent. From her first moment in the light, Larson commands the stage as the spunky June Muldoon. Through she be but little, she is fierce, clear, direct, and wonderfully light in the moments that call for youthful levity. But I have a secret confession: I am drawn more to the silent moments on stage that an actor must pack with intention and then radiate outward into the audience. Very early in the show, Larson’s joyful narration shifts into a flashback into the events of the play, and her sharp turn from exuberance to heavy despair was immediate and powerful. In that silence, as I saw and felt her energy bear the weight of loss, I knew this show was in excellent hands.
Ty Hudson whirls onstage as the aforementioned balloon-riding medical doctor. Again, I’m always watching energy and intention, and Hudson’s buoyant spirit serves so much of the shows physical comedy (not something I was expecting to find, but a really pleasant surprise). An exchange involving a crash course in germ theory with technical jargon that dazzles and baffles the locals was a little bit like a pioneer age mashup of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and The Big Bang Theory (which is an awesome thing, obviously). The good doctor is a mix of paradoxes: he’s a surgeon with a queasy stomach, and a wildly informed and intelligent man who still fumbles, as we all do, with his feelings sometimes. Hudson is light on his feet, nimble with his dialogue, and warm and gentle and always, always very present.
Other moments that need honorable mentions include the symbolic markings of illness (I do love me some straight up theatricality), and the beautiful, silent depictions of death as a somber yet loving exchange (I want to avoid spoilers, but kudos to those involved in the tying together of their hands as they make their final exit—you know who you are, right??). The music, which was sometimes beaitful finger picked guitar and sometimes old, familiar hymns underscored the show marvelously.
I found only two things that would have helped me enjoy the show even more. I am really, really distracted when actors step or walk backwards to get somewhere. It’s a tiny thing, and super easy to adjust, and definitely something people often do without realizing they are doing it at all. But it’s okay to turn your back on the audience, especially for just a second to find your mark or light. This didn’t happen too often, but I did notice it a few times. Also, I would have loved to either see all the props rather than having actors mime occasionally or have all the props mimed, since it’s kind of a memory play anyway. This choice can work, of course, but I couldn’t really figure out if there were rules in the world of the play about why certain objects were mimed and when and others weren’t. I understand bringing a steak on stage every night can get complicated ($$$), but I think it’s worth it. Although, I loved the working water pump! I get excited when surprising objects onstage are functional. I am what I am.
The “Gray” of the title is packed with meaning. It’s the name of the town in which the play is set, yet. It’s the name of the doctor who drops into their lives, yes. But the meaning goes deeper. The seemingly black and white conflict between faith and science, between life and death choices, between comedy and tragedy, between love and loss—they all get mixed up, smeared messily together, and become the blended and confusing world we all know and live in every day. And it’s good to examine that mess, to try to pick it apart once in a while in order to better understand the context of what it is and what it’s made of.
It’s always good to study the anatomy of gray.
Andy Browers grew up in Cloquet, MN and earned degrees in Creative Writing and Theatre from Bemidji State University. He sometimes works as a theatre artist (Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Minnesota, Chameleon Theatre Circle, and the Minnesota Fringe Festival) and sometimes works as a freelance writer (you can check out some of his work at bookriot.com). He lives in Minneapolis, where he eats too much sushi. Just kidding, you can’t eat too much. Unless you’re pregnant. Which he isn’t. Probably. Okay, he eats too much sushi anyway.