By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by Karen RosaNO AGE HAS BEEN SO DIGITALLY SOPHISTICATED as ours, or so restless for new stimuli that the most compelling stories run their courses -- on talk shows or Internet gossip loops -- before they have a chance to engender any kind of sage reflection upon our condition.
Leave it to the Burbank's Alliance Repertory Company, a theater with a reputation for melding dramatic substance with sentience, to offer up a new play (now in its third week) about organ transplantation -- a topic that no one can cuddle up to, an issue, at least on the stage, more discomfiting than fatal illness and less romantic than death itself (both of which we're used to seeing on the boards).
With neither inherent dramatic grace nor certainty of resolution, to say nothing of clear-cut protagonists, A Heart of Flesh involves stricken people sitting around and waiting for organs to become available; that's pretty much the story. Except that playwright Angelo Parra has focused the story not on the hopeful transplant recipients, but on a hospital ethics committee that makes the decisions about who gets the organs.
Heart tells the tale of seven people who make up such a panel at a major hospital and whose job it is to vote on which patient gets the next available heart, liver, lung or pancreas. With the list of needy patients exceeding organ availability, tempers fly, wills clash, and God complexes get tossed around the committee conference table like hot potatoes.
The immediate choice the panel must make is freighted with more moral questions than usual because they must decide who is more deserving of a newly available heart: a 10-year-old black girl in otherwise good health or an aged, fast-living Latino superstar entertainer who promises that if he gets the organ, he'll spend a year doing a benefit concert tour for organ donation. To complicate matters, the hospital has recently endured criticism for giving a double transplant to another high-profile case, the state's governor.
The young girl's mother agitates from outside the institution for her daughter, while the chief transplant surgeon -- a believer in the poster-boy strategy and also an influential member of the committee -- pushes for the singer, who he believes will raise public awareness of the donation crisis and prove more beneficial to the cause.
The others on this ethnically diverse jury have their reasons for their votes, which include racial fealty and political interests, but the rub is in how those reasons continually shift and bleed into each other. Dangling above the story like a carrot is an ideal called objectivity; like its sister ideal of democracy, it proves to be something noble to strive for but a bitch to reach.
The central question that emerges is ugly but fascinating: How best to determine the worthiness of one life over another? There's no answer, of course, but the scope of the question is metaphysical, and watching the actors go through the Rubik's Cube of reasoning is guaranteed to at least generate some interesting post-play discussion.
A Heart of Flesh garnered distinction before being developed at the Alliance: It won the David James Ellis Award for best script, and also took the prize in the Jewel Box Theater (Oklahoma City) and the Mixed Blood Versus America (Minneapolis) playwriting competitions.
Parra, 51, says he was inspired to write the play six years ago after a stint as a freelance communications writer for a large pharmaceutical company. As part of the job, he was once allowed to sit in on a hospital's patient- and ethics-review committee, which met weekly to make organ-transplant decisions. What struck him was not the passion of the process, but the dispassion.
"As I listened to the considerations, it occurred to me that these people would have these great decisions to make, but in a way it was like any other job," he says. "Like a brain surgeon who makes life-and-death decisions that become automatic, routine."
What particularly intrigued Parra about the committee was that, with the exception of the transplant surgeon, it was made up not of medical professionals but of relatively plain folk hailing from all walks of life. One of the things he discovered in the three years he spent â researching organ-transplantation procedures is that race often does play a role -- no big surprise, but a sobering thought nonetheless. "Do you vote your race, or do vote your conscience?" muses Parra, who is himself Latino. That great American quandary is inevitably brought to bear here because "the bottom line is that there just aren't enough organs to go around."
"WHAT IS FAIRNESS? THE BOTTOM LINE is that fair is a feeling, not an absolute," says director Robert Mandan. "It's a sliding scale." Hospital committees do employ objective criteria when awarding organs -- the patient's blood type, need, geographical proximity to the organ. "But with those being equal, great variables come into the picture." Mandan elaborates: "Everyone claims there are no social or personal factors involved. That's not true -- the white power elite gets what it wants and needs." In the play, "There's a black minister, an Al Sharpton type, publicly protesting the transplant process, who's trying to get what he and his community want. But there really isn't a right or a wrong decision."