Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 1999

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a doctor of medicine, a popular humor writer, a founder of “The Atlantic” magazine, the owner of a home on Holmes Road in Pittsfield, and the father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Born in 1809, the senior Holmes was a an important member of the group responsible for the “Flowering of New England” in the middle of the 19th century. But memories are short, and it is now his son we think of when we hear the name (or, worse by far, TV lawyer/farmer Oliver Wendell Douglas on “Green Acres”).

Author Carl Edwards has labored for some time over biographies and Holmes’ own writings to piece together a one man play about the life of the celebrated Doctor, and the Manic Stage has undertaken a production with Spencer Trova as Holmes.

The show opens Thursday, April 29, but I will be out of town from Thursday through Sunday of this week, and it was arranged for me to attend the last of the open rehearsals the theatre held this past weekend. So I cannot really comment on the production or the performance. What I am left with are the script and the concept.

And Edwards script is weak. Having seen Trova in his one man show of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” last December, I know that he is capable of carrying a show alone, and that he is not a one note actor. What I saw of “Dr. Holmes” was decidedly monotone and undramatic. Granted this was a rehearsal and Trova was ill with the flu. Or it could be that Edwards has accurately recreated Dr. Holmes as genial man with little spark to him, but then how could he have risen in his profession and succeeded as a humorous writer and much-in-demand speaker? The fault here must lie with Edwards.

Not only has Edwards failed to make Holmes a dramatic character, he has failed to create a play. Trova is left lecturing on Holmes life, rather than bringing him to life. Edwards is too careful to be politically correct, having Holmes repeatedly explain to the audience that “times were different then.” Hmmm, let’s see, 150 years ago things were different? Now there’s a concept that no one over the age of eight needs to have explained.

Women and blacks were not welcome at Harvard Medical School, anesthesia was not used in operating rooms, medical school lasted less than two years and human dissection was forbidden, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was kicked out of Harvard for allowing the Civil War to interfere with his education. These are all important points to make to enable the audience to appreciate Holmes’ world, but in a play they are not things we should be told, they are things we should be shown, or allowed to learn, as plot unfolds and character develops. Alas, no plot unfolds and no character develops. Which is a dead waste of Trova’s talents and makes Holmes, who was obviously no slouch, seem like a dull fellow indeed.

The set by Gordon Hedler is one of the best I have seen at the Manic. It uses the narrow and deep space well, and really gives the feel of a 19th century doctor’s office. The lighting and use of props was still rough in the rehearsal I saw, but they showed signs of promise.

“Dr. Holmes of Boston” opens Thursday, April 29 at 8 PM with performances scheduled this weekend and next. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission. The Manic Stage is located at 25 Main Street in North Adams, adjacent to Zoie’s Restaurant. Dinner/theatre packages are available. Call 413-662-2323 for reservations and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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