Saturday, August 14, 2010

Hammarskjold: The Philosopher's Tale

A new production in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Ron McKinney's Hammarskjold is a psychological mystery embroidered by philosophical debates. Premiering at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theater, the drama pivots around the puzzling identity of several mental patients and a baffling bomb attack at the United Nations. By the end of the performance, the threads of these disparate mysteries have been neatly tied together amidst a more abstract dispute on the difficulty of separating appearance from reality.

Set in a New York psychiatric hospital, Hammarskjold focuses on several therapists treating two problematic patients. An aggressive psychologist, Dr. Madison O'Reilly explores the enigma of a patient who believes himself to be Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations who died in the Congo uprising in 1961. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the patient knows in extraordinary detail the life of Hammarskjold; this knowledge seems to have been acquired by more than extensive reading or chance. A far quieter, self-doubting psychologist, Dr. Robbie Hanson attempts to unravel the sources of the rage of his Congolese Patient, Mputa. As they treat their patients, both therapists face their own internal conflicts as they undergo analysis by their own supervisors. A senior officer of the hospital, Dr. James Schmetterling supervises the investigation of these mysterious cases and carries on a tormented relationship with girlfriend Charlie Merleau, a security officer investigating the unsolved UN attack.

Unsurprisingly, the author of the drama is a philosopher and university professor. As the play comes to an unexpected (and poetically satisfying) resolution of its various mysteries, McKinney engages in speculations concerning history, sexuality, professional ethics, reincarnation, providence, fate, and discernment of the truth through psychoanalysis. On occasion, these excursions are moralizing and wearying. One might learn more than any human being would wish to know about Hammarskjold's biography and Congolese politics. But the satirical humor of the dialogue and the curiosity concerning the outcome of these various puzzles prevent the drama from stalling.

Lynne Morton's austere direction of the play maintains its therapeutic and rather abstract atmosphere. The characters pursue their detective work, their conflicts, and their romantic interests as participants in a therapeutic session on which the audience eavesdrops. Only emotion and argument remain. The therapists and security guard cling to their ringside places; the enraged patients are frozen in the outer ring of the performance space. Ably assisting this stark rendition of the script is the minimalist set design by Carrie Fucile. A diaphanous set of wires enclose the stage as if the audience is viewing the imprisonment or masking of the mind during the play's debates and discoveries. The two patients vent their rage from a blank white distance. Only in the play's transcendent ending does the ecstatic Charlie break the emotional paralysis and the physical stasis in which the other characters are enclosed.

The quality of acting varies. Andrea Bush gives a bravura performance as the bisexual Charlie. From beginning to end, her presence, diction, and emotional verve dominate the stage. Bob Ahrens (the Hammarskjold patient) and Kevin Baker (Mputa) plumb the emotional depths of their anguished characters. Kerry Brady (Madison) captures the aggressive bounce of her character; the performances of Ron Decker (James) and Jeffrey Coleman (Robbie) seem more tentative.

With its complex action, speculative dialogue, and austere production, Hammarskjold provides a challenging exercise in philosophical drama.


  1. Thanks for your comments about Hammarskjold. This is a theatrically challenging production in that each character speaks only in monologue, or one-sided conversations with another invisble mute particiant.

    Audiences have commented over the weekend that they find the style intriguing, and often feel very much like they are the "fly on the wall, overhearing another's conversation."

    Now, with 4 performances before a live audience, the actors are finding more and more of their characters, and are reaching deeper into the emotions and thoughts that drive (or torment) each character.

    Hammarskjold defies being classified -- murder mystery, political thriller, history, philosophical treatise -- but onet thing it is, it is excellent theater, provoking an audience to think, feel and act!
    FUZZ Roark (Managing/Artistic Director, Spotlighters Theatre,

  2. The performance was amazing to me. With a cast of just six characters and a LOT of dialogue to remember, I was in awe that they could remember all those lines (especially Andrea and Ron) plus stay in their characters and be so emotive throughout the performance. Bravo to the cast, the writer, the director and the crew.