In his many years as a paramedic, Ed (Jamey Sheridan) has delivered emergency care to soldiers and citizens in Kashmir, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq. At a makeshift hospital 250 yards from the front line in Mosul, as sniper fire flew through the blown-out windows, he and his team made curtains out of body bags.
Still, for down-and-dirty “war medicine,” as he calls it, nothing matches what he went through in the first months of Covid-19 in New York City. In Mosul he was under fire for only three days.
If you are not too squeamish to sit through an hour of firsthand testimony drawn from interviews conducted during the onset of the pandemic, “The Line” — a documentary play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen that premiered online on Wednesday — will be glad to make you flinch and cry. Ed and the six other characters, whose names have been changed though they are not composites, will tell you about the chaos and danger they faced, the suffering they saw, the patients they saved and the ones they couldn’t.
When a geriatric care nurse named Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint) recovers from her own near-fatal bout with the coronavirus, she returns to work to find she’s lost half her “gerrys.” The Brooklyn hospital where Jennifer (Alison Pill) is a first-year intern so lacks supplies that she winds up attaching a makeshift ventilator to a patient’s face with “regular tape.” He dies anyway.
The stories are harrowing, the more so because we know they are real. Sometimes they are hyper-real; actors, inevitably, want to act, and Blank, directing them, has not enforced subtlety.
Perhaps subtlety is not wanted. In three previous documentary works, Blank and Jensen have shaped their transcripts into implicit agendas. “The Exonerated” used the words of former death row prisoners to mount a meta-argument against the justice system. In “The Aftermath,” Iraqi refugees living in Jordan indict a United States foreign policy that does not mind what collateral damage it does. And in “Coal Country” — produced, like “The Line,” by the Public Theater — the families of men who died in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 paint a picture of capitalism gone wild.
That “Coal Country” was itself killed by Covid-19 — it opened on March 3 and closed eight days later, as New York theaters were shuttering — suggests the authors’ urgency to understand what was happening. Their inquiry led them to the stories of first responders trying to address the emergency on the fly. As the characters dismiss the idea of heroism, you feel the play, named in part for their front-line bravery, trying to contradict them. It does not have to try very hard.
But it’s no small problem that the tension between modesty and hagiography is just about the only present-tense drama here. For all the urgency of the care they provided, the characters are essentially talking heads; though their monologues have been diced and spliced to give the effect of dialogue, they never interact, speaking only to the interviewers, whom we in the audience stand in for. The mode is not just presentational but historical: They are looking back like veterans on a war that, from that angle, too often seems to be over.
So when Oscar (John Ortiz) tells us that the daily caseload for paramedics jumped to 7,000 from 2,000 in a matter of weeks, a volume that meant they were “just catching bodies,” he is able to do so with a rueful chuckle. And though David (Santino Fontana) describes trying to manage a beloved uncle’s illness while still handling his own duties, the focus of his narrative is on how his former career as an actor made him a better nurse.
Squishy passages like these — and there’s also a montage of tear-begging photographs set to a lovely Aimee Mann song at the end — seem almost inevitable in a work that applies Blank and Jensen’s documentary technique to a subject that resists it.
Unlike greedy mine owners, careless diplomats or overzealous prosecutors, Covid-19 is not a very theatrical antagonist. It is mechanical and motiveless. Even terrific acting cannot turn a virus into a scene partner; the best performances are therefore the ones that look elsewhere for their drama. Toussaint, with her faux-tough shell, and Pill, with her raccoon-like mask marks, are especially affecting; in suppressing emotion they reveal it.
Eventually, the play does too, as it latches on to a larger theme and a human, or at least a man-made, villain. When Ed says that “the federal government abandoned New York, and they have American blood on their hands,” you wish he were speaking to Congress.
But the point emerges most eloquently and urgently in the testimony of Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock) and Vikram (Arjun Gupta). Dwight is an oncology nurse from Trinidad whose husband, a veteran, works in an intensive care unit. Vikram, the son of Indian immigrants, is an emergency-room doctor who, after returning from a vacation in Southeast Asia in March, collapsed while out on a run with a lover.
It’s no accident that these are two gay men of color. “Cleaning, taking food, touching them,” Dwight says of his fellow nurses and their patients. “No one else would go in. We were like, ‘Wait a minute, are we expendable?’”
Vikram drives home the point that people’s vulnerability to the disease is not equally distributed in a medical system that is “flawed from its root.”
“Through this whole thing, our economy has been on the backs of the Black and brown people who couldn’t escape that vulnerability,” he says. “And we caught one aspect of it on a video, and that woke up millions of people. Right?” He does not need to name the iPhone footage of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
“But with medicine,” he adds, “there’s no way to show people the racism that’s caused these disparate outcomes with Covid.”
Thankfully, there is now.