City Lit Theater Company

at the Raven Theatre

Of all the grotesque maladies that can afflict us, brain disorders are especially horrifying. They don’t merely cause pain and debility; they strike at the core of human personality, and challenge the sense of self in a way that a diseased kidney or a broken bone cannot. They force us back to that most fundamental question–who am I? Or rather, what, exactly, is this “I” that I experience? Is it primarily just the product of brain chemicals? And if those chemicals are disrupted through injury or disease, is that “I” that seems so fixed and immutable somehow destroyed?

When brain damage confronts us with these questions, the horror, like all horror, carries with it a morbid fascination. There’s something lurid, even exciting, about accounts of brain disease, for we get to see, by a process of elimination, what makes us tick. As brain functions are disturbed, we begin to see what is abiding about the “I,” and what is just chemistry.

Oliver Sacks, a professor of clinical neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, has exploited this fascination, bringing to his observations a dramatic flourish not seen since the case studies written by another great neurologist, Sigmund Freud. He has written about migraine headaches, tics, and his own injured leg. In his most recent book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he tells mind-boggling tales of patients suffering from bizarre brain deficiencies: a man who cannot remember anything for more than a minute or two; a woman who has lost all sense of her own body; a bag lady with an overwhelming compulsion to mimic the people she passes on the street. He also includes stories of mentally handicapped patients who have some extraordinary ability, such as the man who memorized more than 2,000 operas, even though he was too simpleminded to read music.

But in his book Awakenings, published in 1973, Sacks focused on a single group of unfortunates–the survivors of encephalitis lethargica, a bizarre type of sleeping sickness that afflicted an estimated five million people throughout the world between 1916 and 1927. The malady produced the seemingly infinite and mystifying symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: compulsive tics, muscle rigidity, a tendency to repeat words or utter obscenities, a sense of urgency and impatience. But the most alarming symptom, the one that gave this new disease its name, was the profound catatonia that engulfed the victims. Some of them sat utterly motionless and speechless for decades, totally lacking the energy or the impulse to move, speak, eat, or even look at anything. Some victims of the disease, according to Sacks, were turned into “living statues.”

Parkinsonism is caused by a deficiency in the brain of dopamine, a chemical that transmits electrical impulses. In 1967, doctors began treating parkinsonism with a drug called L-dopa, which contains dopamine, and the results were encouraging. At the time, Sacks was working at Mount Carmel, a charity hospital outside of New York that cared for about 80 survivors of encephalitis lethargica. In 1969, when the cost of L-dopa had dropped substantially, Sacks began administering it to the patients, awakening them almost immediately from their stupor and restoring them to health–temporarily. The City Lit Theater’s brilliant adaptation of Awakenings presents the case histories of more than a dozen of these people–stories that would be utterly unbelievable if they weren’t true.

When he wrote Awakenings, Sacks must have known he was dealing with sensational material. A simple recounting of these cases would be exciting enough to “awaken the dead,” as the National Enquirer described Sacks’s achievement.

But Sacks goes a step–make that two steps–farther. First, he recounts these histories in prose of seductive eloquence and grace. Certain passages evoke Freud’s own gorgeous prose.

And like Freud, Sacks attempts to explore the metaphysical implications of his observations. Such speculation is hard to resist. Harold Pinter’s play A Kind of Alaska was inspired by one of these case studies, and the very notion of someone waking after a 50-year “sleep” is sure to raise beguiling questions about the way we experience time, change, and our own existence.

By confronting such questions, Sacks’s writing verges on both literature and pretension. The literary qualities of Awakenings are what attracted Arnold Aprill, City Lit’s artistic director, to the material, and his decision to adapt these case histories was bold and inspired. He has staged the work with wit, intelligence, and an eerie beauty that is both enthralling and educational. (Merely conveying the simple fact that Parkinson’s disease is far more than an irritating palsy is a formidable accomplishment.)

But the adaptation still slams into the problem of pretension. Sacks does brood magnificently over the implications of the illness he is seeking to cure. His thinking is lucid and filled with a dramatic urgency. In his adaptation, Aprill has seized on those passages, making Sacks a vital dramatic figure.

Still, the brooding never achieves the resolution of drama. Unlike the events in a well-written play, the case studies–and Sacks’s reaction to them–never add up to more than the sum of their parts. Awakenings draws its power ultimately from the grotesque details of actual events, and no matter how beautifully they are presented, any string of anecdotes is going to become monotonous.

In his direction, Aprill battles valiantly against this monotony by deftly editing the medical terminology and by adding a few dramatic flourishes of his own. For example, in his book Sacks describes, in technical detail, the plight of a woman smothered by her mother’s affection. Aprill has fashioned this passage into a brief but powerful scene that makes the animosity between these two characters palpable. By dramatizing the case histories, Aprill actually intensifies the frustration and the anxiety Sacks experiences as he fails to achieve permanent cures for his patients.

The actors under Aprill’s direction achieve the seemingly impossible–they inject vitality into characters who are virtually catatonic. Michael Raysses is outstanding as Rolando, an Italian man roused to a brief, lusty life after nearly a half century of immobility. Christine St. John captures the sweet, simple nobility of Magda, an elderly Viennese woman who, despite losing 45 years of her life to an immobilizing disease, is ecstatic about her revival. “The fact is, I’m a very happy person,” she admits, after being reunited with her three daughters. “I can’t say I’m sad, and it’s been terrible, because I’m too happy.”

And Kelly Nespor makes a remarkable transition as Maria, the “Sicilian bombshell” who turns into a snarling monster just days after her blissful awakening.

I was enthralled by this production, but I should confess that I brought an unusual amount of interest in this topic to the theater with me. My mother suffered massive brain damage nine years ago after a cardiac arrest, and every time I see her I end up pondering that mysterious connection between the body and the mind. She’s conscious, alert, and occasionally obstreperous, but the woman I knew is gone. She can recite pleasant greetings flawlessly, but she can’t utter a single original sentence. Although she reacts to people around her, she doesn’t seem to know anyone. Sometimes I’m not even sure she’s aware of herself. So who is this person?

I’ve often wondered what would happen if she could be restored by a magical injection. How would she describe where she has been? How would she view the world after seeing such a distorted picture of it? Could she become her old self? Or would she always be haunted by the tenuous grasp we have on our perceptions, our emotions, our “selves”?

Questions like these reverberate through Awakenings. They’re not just hard to answer, they’re hard to imagine, simply because reality always seems so utterly . . . real.

Sacks knows that our experience of the world is mediated by a very fragile, dynamic mass of tissue within the skull. The City Lit adaptation, by dramatizing this simple fact, demonstrates how easily that sense of reality can be devastated. And discovering that can be a very rude awakening indeed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.