Interplay is clearly trying to get a point across. The company has a lobby display decrying the use of nuclear power and peace banners that suggest the split atom is an unnecessary evil. Brochures from Greenpeace and other antinuclear groups have also been set out. But Sarcophagus, the play by Pravda science editor Vladimir Gubaryev that is based on his observations during the Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant disaster, is a lot more ambiguous than the lobby display would have you believe.
Sarcophagus began as an essay that had been commissioned by a Soviet literary magazine and that was to analyze the Chernobyl incident. The first journalist to report on the crisis, Gubaryev had a lot of firsthand experience and was a logical choice for the assignment. As he began writing, however, Gubaryev felt his own emotional response needed to be expressed and that response would be better conveyed using a play format.
The play was not written as a condemnation of the nuclear industry, though the people who make up the bureaucracy that allowed this tragedy to happen are condemned. It is rather an assembly of characters, based on people Gubaryev met, who are allowed to tell their stories within a loosely theatrical form.
Not that the style is unconventional. As the program attests, Sarcophagus has a textbook structure in which the “Aristotelian conventions of Greek tragedy, unity of time, place, and action, are strictly observed.” However, the play is decidedly undramatic. There is no real plot. What conflicts exist are hopelessly muddled and confusing. Gubaryev’s observations are interesting, but he spends more time explaining the data he acquired during his investigation than creating a play. Though his intent was to humanize the accident, Sarcophagus is long on facts, figures, and philosophy–and very short on plot, character, and action.
The play takes place in a radiation clinic in Chernobyl. The first image is that of a solitary patient clinging to the wall, completely bald, clothed in hospital pajamas, arms stretched up over his head in a picture of despair. This is Bessmertny, aka Krolik, aka patient K. He is the only patient at the radiation-treatment center and is something of a medical marvel, having survived more than a year longer than he was expected to. Through Bessmertny–a lively, creative, and unexpectedly optimistic man most of the time–the audience is introduced to the doctors and interns of the clinic, most of whom seem to have earned their PhDs and reputations through their studies of him.
Then an alarm sounds. The accident has happened. Nine new radiation cases are brought into the center, and Bessmertny suddenly finds his world filled with strangers. These include a peasant woman, a young hoodlum, a lab technician and her boss, a fireman, the head of the power plant, a nuclear physicist from Moscow, and a general and his driver. Most of the play is spent trying to figure out why the accident happened, while the patients die off one by one.
Each patient has his or her own preoccupation. The fireman falls in love with an intern. The peasant woman is desperate to milk her cow, Dasha. The bureaucratic head of the plant, who becomes the bad guy, obsesses about who ordered the emergency safety switch turned off. A lot of information about radiation and the nature of the Chernobyl explosion is tossed about. Between scenes a male voice comes over the loudspeakers and tells the audience about nuclear explosions and how to survive them.
Director David Perkovich doesn’t help matters by refusing to let us in on what is important in all that’s being said. Everything is so significant and so bogged down with data that very little gets across. Worse, trivial things, such as the fact that chickens have an incredible tolerance for radiation, become more memorable than the major issues.
The cast falls into the same trap. All the actors are very earnest–everything anyone says is of enormous consequence. But when equal energy is spent finding out the true identity of a petty hoodlum and detetmining what caused the accident and who is to blame, it’s hard to know what to pay attention to. Everything is so important that nothing becomes important.
It’s also hard to differentiate between the characters, as few of the actors have given them life. The resulting sameness adds to the confusion. Yet Jan Lucas plays Dr. Anna Petrovna with a tender gracefulness; she is bright, funny, and caring, while never veering from her scientific outlook. And George Badecker, while making Bessmertny almost impish, manages to capture both his despair and optimism.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.