Two men facing imminent death from a terminal illness and a doctor with the means to save only one of them. Who will live? Who will die?

If this sounds like a made-for-TV movie or an episode of a weekly medical drama, think again. It’s The Doctor’s Dilemma, George Bernard Shaw’s smart, funny, still thought-provoking 1906 comedy and the latest classic to be revived—smashingly—by A Noise Within.

 The doctor in question is the recently knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Geoff Elliott), whose revolutionary new cure for tuberculosis offers hope to both poet Louis Dubedat (Jason Dechert) and to Ridgeon’s fellow physician Dr. Blenkinsop (David LM McIntyre), only one of whom Sir Colenso can consent to treat.

The decision seems at first to be an easy one. Louis is brilliantly talented and married to the drop-dead gorgeous Jennifer (Jules Willcox), while Dr. Blenkinsop is, to quote playwright Shaw, “flabby and shabby, cheaply fed and cheaply clothed,” and as far as Ridgeon is concerned, the more expendable of the two.

Then the good doctor meets serial philanderer (and unrepentant bigamist) Louis and all bets are off.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, The Doctor’s Dilemma runs a good thirty minutes longer than I’d wish it to, par for the course for George Bernard Shaw. Fortunately, its compelling plot, some particularly witty writing, and an all-around splendid cast under Dámaso Rodriguez’s incisive direction make The Doctor’s Dilemma worth seeing, even by relative Shavophobes like this reviewer.

Shaw mines considerable humor skewering the early 19th Century medical establishment with characters like Sir Patrick Cullen (Apollo Dukakis), who informs us that “I’ve tried these modern inoculations a bit myself. I’ve killed people with them; and I’ve cured people with them; but I gave them up because I never could tell which I was going to do.” Then there’s Dr. Cutler Walpole (Freddy Douglas), whose operation of choice is the removal of the Shaw-invented “nuciform sac.” “People pay him five hundred guineas to cut it out,” explains Ridgeon. “They might as well get their hair cut for all the difference it makes; but I suppose they feel important after it.” Completing Ridgeon’s immediate circle of friends is Sir Ralph Bloomingfield Bonington (Robertson Dean), aka BB, who boasts triumphantly that having accidentally inoculated a typhoid case for tetanus and a tetanus case for typhoid, the saw both of them make full recoveries, and “except for a touch of St Vitus’s dance, the missionary’s as well to-day as ever, and the beadle’s ten times the man he was.”

 The art world, or at the very least artist Louis, gets equal treatment. Not only does the penniless Louis attempt to borrow 150 pounds from Ridgeon (that’s nearly $6000 in today’s currency!), when the good doctor refuses, the painter has the chutzpah to propose that Sir Colenso get the money for him by blackmailing Louis’ wife, then suggests that Ridgeon blackmail his patients into sitting to Louis for their portraits. And that’s just for starters.

Despite its advanced years, The Doctor’s Dilemma continues to have a good deal to offer to contemporary audiences. There is the still relevant medical and ethical predicament of having to decide whose life is more worth saving, the honest man who is nothing extraordinary or the extraordinary artist who happens also to be a sociopath, albeit a charming one. There are also the richly developed characters Shaw has created, from Ridgeon, so easily swayed by the beauty of the opposite sex, to Louis, so absolutely convinced that he can do no moral wrong, to Jennifer, so willing to turn a blind eye to any of her husband’s failings.


Shaw’s 106-year-old comedy makes for a terrific star vehicle for A Noise Within resident artists Dean, Douglas, Dukakis, Elliott as four richly developed Men Of Medicine and Deborah Strang as Ridgeon’s dotty maid Emmy. Guest artists Dechert and Willcox once again prove that movie star looks and award-caliber talent can indeed go hand in hand, and Rafael Goldstein and McIntyre each score in such clearly delineated dual roles that you’d swear there were four actors playing them. ANW intern Kelly Ehlert completes the cast terrifically as Louis’ other wife Minnie.

The Doctor’s Dilemma looks marvelous, with costume designer Leah Piehl’s period finery, Susan Gratch’s elegant scenic design, and prop master Katherine S. Hunt’s assorted paraphernalia, all of them richly lit by Brian Gale. Doug Newell’s sound design and original music both rate thumbs up, as do Monica Lisa Sabedra’s wig, hair, and makeup design. The cast’s spot-on dialects are aided and abetted by Nike Doukas.

 As for the acoustics in A Noise Within’s new Pasadena digs, The Doctor’s Dilemma confirms this reviewer’s impression at Cymbeline several weeks ago. They are much improved, allowing the audience to hear Shaw’s many words quite clearly indeed.

Deidre Works is stage manager. Meghan Gray is production manager, Andrew Ellis technical director, and Kellsy MacKilligan costume shop manager. Alfonso Ramirez is assistant director.

Though George Bernard Shaw will likely never top this reviewer’s list of favorite playwrights, The Doctor’s Dilemma proves to be one of his most interesting and accessible to modern audiences, and as this latest A Noise Within revival makes crystal clear, remains gratifyingly relevant over a century after its first performance.

A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
November 8, 2012
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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