In their portrayal of characters locked up in an insane asylum, the supporting actors in Anton Chekhov’s Ward 6 (at Central Works through Nov. 11) work from the outside in. They’ll emit occasional howls like wolves suffering from Tourette syndrome. Or their eyes will stare a little bit too intensely at some terrible, invisible thing on the ceiling. They employ shrieks and groans to convince the audience that their turmoil is real.
In adapting Chekhov’s novella, director Gary Graves encourages the cast to express anguish with the bluntness of ball-peen hammer. This approach to drama isn’t exactly an insult to people who suffer from distressing psychological problems but it doesn’t do them any favors, either. But in doing so, he makes an obvious choice by insisting that there’s a chasm, rather than a thin membrane, that separates the sane from the afflicted.
The main character, however, is meant to stand as a corrective to all these conspicuous signs of group hysteria. As he treats the patients in Ward 6, Dr. Andrei Ragin (Richard Frederick) straddles that thin line between society — the stable world — and the unstable minds confined to the asylum. After working at the hospital for twenty years, his initial enthusiasm for treating the ill has waned. He’s lost the ability to empathize, spouting empty platitudes to Ivan (Ed Berkeley), the one patient he starts to engage and identify with.
In those exchanges with Ivan, Dr. Ragin starts to show signs of his own deteriorating mental health. For one, he declaims in the most reasonable of tones that his own cozy study, provided by the provincial government he works for, isn’t really so different from the squalid conditions of Ward 6. He tells Ivan that it’s how you feel on the inside that matters. In his comfortable home, Dr. Ragin has a servant who prepares his meals and cleans up after him. The patients in the ward, on the other hand, are ruled over by Nikita (Adam Roy, in a shouty performance), an abusive watchman who wields a heavy nightstick.
Unmarried and childless, Dr. Ragin also repeatedly says that he longs for intelligent conversation but can’t find anyone to fulfill that role out there in the boondocks. He’s stopped attending the mayor’s gatherings, and his one friend Mikhail (Don Wood) is a gambler, a drinker and an all around reprobate. But he’s drawn to Ivan’s intelligence. The other patients refer to Ivan at various times as a prophet. Berkeley gives the character a messianic intensity that’s a theatrical inheritance from Jesus Christ Superstar. The problem with his part in the script, along with the other patients, is that the audience has no idea who they were as individuals before they got locked up. It’s hard to have sympathy for a feral growl or an imitation of Peter Lorre’s gasping laughter.
Dr. Ragin’s position is endangered when the town hires Dr. Khobotov (Louel Señores) to assist him. The patient Carolina Morones plays could be Khobotov’s former lover and mother of his child, but the script is full of narrative blanks. At times, she wails like a banshee about her missing baby. But we can’t confirm that she’s the same woman. Graves hasn’t constructed a scene to show her baby being taken away or her subsequent imprisonment. There’s no such history given to any of the patients. Without any personal details, Ivan becomes less and less human and more figurative as the play continues.
The only mind that Dr. Ragin is drawn to in this community is Ivan’s. The two characters mirror each other. But when Ward 6 ends, we still have no clue what went into the formation of Ivan’s paranoid psyche. He’s only a projection of Dr. Ragin’s troubled soul, and a likely vision of his future behind bars. Any justifiable paranoia that exists rightly belongs to Ragin — someone is out to get him. This approach might have worked better if Frederick’s Ragin hadn’t landed in the midst of a moaning chorus. He’s the quiet eye in a very loud storm that overwhelms his stately performance.
Ward 6, through Nov. 11, at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, $22-$38; 510-558-1381 or centralworks.org