Paranoia is infectious in Zayd Dohrn's new drama Sick. It's an ever worsening condition for a New York City family that lives like a germophobic cult. Mother Maxine (Liann Pattison) has sequestered her homeschooled and highly allergic children in as sterile an environment as possible. She's trying to shield them from germs, chemicals in household products, pesticides, dog excrement tracked from sidewalks and airborne toxins, including the particle dust of asbestos and crushed bodies of 9/11 victims. It's not clear whether the family lives in a perpetual state of hypochondria or necessarily vigilant state of alert versus an ever-more-toxic world. Do the precautions make them safer or more vulnerable? They immunize themselves from the outside world but also cut themselves off, which ultimately can't be healthy.
Maxine also may have succeeded in sterilizing her children. When husband and literature professor Sidney (Bob Edes Jr.) brings home a graduate student and aspiring poet, Jim (Sean Glazebrook), to meet his hermetically sealed family, both children privately ask the outsider what it is like to be intimate with others. They know the world only through books and the Internet.
Dohrn revels in the poetic ambiguities of the extremes; it is never clear whether the mother is a savior or a control freak. Is the apartment an immaculate safe haven ("bunker") or a prison? What have they sacrificed to make themselves safe?
Glazebrook has a brilliant moment evoking how Jim hurt his father and pursued conflict to enrich his artistic inspirations with suffering. It's not pretty, but he makes the point that it's hard to grow in an environment free of risk or pain. In another vignette about minor skin blemishes, he is wickedly seductive to family daughter Sarah (Jessica Lewis), who yearns to explore the world. The cast does an excellent job, particularly Edes as the slightly egotistical but sensitive academic, and Pattison as a velvet-gloved smothering figure.
Under Aimée Hayes' direction, the play finds plenty of relief in its sick humor. Pollutants like cans of Cheez Whiz and air freshener have probably never been deployed so menacingly. Without ever prescribing it, the play seems to beg for reasonability. But it's not easy to be noticed as a champion of moderation. Perhaps Dohrn, who happens to be the son of former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers (also of 2008 election notoriety), sees it as a necessary remedy. — Will Coviello
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