Volunteer Man, a Dan Clancy play, is about stigma, religion and euthanasia. Set in the present it is a look at the life of a (straight) American man, Melvin (Michael Gamliel) who has HIV and who has not responded to ARV therapy and his relationship with a gay “volunteer man”, Adam (Roy Horovitz) who visits him in a Roman Catholic hospital.
The truth is that in 2014 HIV is once again becoming the scary killer virus it once was. The current generation of HIV is a drug resistant strain and it is failing to respond to any of the current ARVs. The proposition on stage is therefore once again horrifyingly real in a way that us “old timers” remember from the 80s and very early 90s when people died of AIDS in ways which were most undignified.
The stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and with homosexuality is implied rather than explored as the issue is really euthanasia. The disease is incidental. It could have been anything. However, I found the characterisation of the nurse, a nun, played by Carol Brown, most disturbing. The playwright is American, the director and cast are Israeli, but the audience is South African. We live in a South African society where the standards of nursing, particularly in government hospitals, have dropped tragically. There are two aspects to nursing. One is the actual treatment meted out to patients. This involves the interventions to help the patient get better. It involves such things as the position in which a patient is placed, the administration of medication, the daily routines followed by a patient and things ordered by one or more members of a multi-disciplinary team and performed by a nurse. The other aspect is caring. This is not ordered as part of the treatment to make the patient get better. It is what makes the treatment better for the patient. It is the manner in which treatment and the routines are carried out. This is the nurse’s talent, the nurse’s gift to the patient. It involves compassion, dignity, sensitivity, empathy and courage. The nurse here treats the patient, but she offers no care. That rips my heart out.
Discussing the play with the cast afterwards is part of the modus operandi of this particular group. The director, Roy Horovitz, points out that the play was written with an unsympathetic nurse in mind so as to underscore the fact that only the Volunteer Man, Adam, can help the patient, Melvin. The nurse won’t. I buy that to an extent, but my feeling is that the nurse won’t, not because she doesn’t care, but because, being a nun, she is a good Catholic and the ethical implications of euthanasia are cut and dried for many religiously orthodox people from a wide range of creeds and religions, including, of course, Catholicism.
Ultimately this play works not because it won an Obie or was nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Award against Defamation), but because it touches us in that little sensitive spot we keep for one of our worst fears – that of dying a long, slow, painful and undignified death.
This is a must see play. There are some fabulous lines in it and it is generally thought provoking.
Directed by Roy Horovitz, starring Roy Horovitz, Michael Gamliel and Carol Brown with music by Daniel Salomon and costumes and set by Inga Barba it is facilitated by Daphne Kuhn and Victor Gordon and Tararam, the cultural arm of The Embassy of Israel in South Africa. It can be seen at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 22 February 2014.