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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the August 6, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Dr. Cook’s Garden’

Dr. Cook’s Garden" isn’t about planting, fertilizing,

and flowers, but it is about weeding. And not just the soil. How he

tends his garden (or has it tended) is a metaphor for the village

of Greenfield Center, Vermont, where Dr. Cook lives and practices.

It’s a one-doctor town.

The melodrama, now playing weekends through August 16 at Hopewell’s

Off-Broadstreet Theater, is by Ira Levin, the renowned author of such

popular novels and plays as "The Stepford Wives," "Rosemary’s

Baby," and the stage adaptations of "No Time for Sergeants,"

"A Kiss Before Dying," and "The Boys from Brazil."

He’s perhaps best known for his thriller, "Deathtrap," which

earned a Tony and ran 1,793 performances.

So how can this play be bad? It opened and closed within a week in

New York in 1967 and later became a made-for-TV movie.

The garden is talked about but never seen. Dr. Leonard Cook’s garden

is beautiful, we’re told, so perfect that it is featured on the cover

of "Flower and Garden" Magazine. The entire play takes place

in a single setting, Dr. Cook’s adjoining waiting room-sitting room/living

room and office, and his examining room. Robert Thick has designed

an all-purpose, carefully appointed set, complete with rolltop desk

and file boxes for X-ray films and index cards. The conscientious,

hard-working, and genial doctor makes a point of keeping the cards

up to date; this will trigger the play’s tension and lead to Dr. Cook’s

dark secret.

Doug Kline, who has appeared in 15 Off-Broadstreet productions as

well as in other area productions, does a fine and convincing job

as Dr. Cook. He is by turns angry, impassioned, and kindly. If in

the third act he is diabolical, quite over the top, you know why this

is called melodrama.

Although the production values are fine, the play is a one-joke effort,

not Levin’s best. Levin’s was not the only top name tied to this play.

Burl Ives played Dr. Cook, and George C. Scott directed. Bing Crosby,

in his last performance. played Dr. Cook in the movie.

The action starts with the arrival of Jim Tennyson (Walt Cupit), a

newly minted doctor, just graduated from Northwestern. His homecoming

is joyous: Bea Schmidt (Helen Stafford), the doctor’s nurse, and housekeeper

Dora Ludlow (believably played by Laura MacGregor), bring Jim up to

date on what’s been happening in the town, the marriages and the deaths.

The town, too, is perfect. Its mean, violent, and impaired citizens

have all died, Jim learns. "The Lord watches over this town,"

says nurse Bea. And, in obvious foreshadowing, Bea asks Dr. Tennyson

to take an electrocardiogram of Dr. Cook. She fears he’s had a heart

attack.

The first act is tensionless until Dr. Jim, going through Dr. Cook’s

record file cards, which he has left out to update while he leaves

to make a house call, finds some marked with a mysterious "R."

Dr. Cook uses a sticker system to instruct his gardener, Elias Hart

(well-played by Carl Leone). Elias tells Jim that "T" is for

transplant, "P" is for prune. And "R"? asks Jim. Elias

solves the brief mystery. "R" is for remove.

After "remove," the play in Act II becomes a

heated, principled argument between Dr. Cook and Jim. Dr. Cook might

argue that "R" is for rest, but Jim (and the audience) don’t

believe that.

Unlike most Off-Broadstreet productions, which offer comedy and farce,

"Dr. Cook’s Garden" poses a moral dilemma, and even raises

the question of evil. Is the kindly, small-town doctor doing good,

as he himself would believe?

"This is the best town in the entire state, in the country, in

the world," he says in his defense, adding that his actions are

"never in anger and never quickly." He admits that his targets

included Jim’s violent father, who beat him and broke his arm; a retarded

girl; the town’s selfish meanie: a product of incest; and other "undesirables."

Saying he doesn’t enjoy killing, he points out that his skill has

kept dozens of people alive.

Jim argues that "the law says it’s wrong." Doc counters quickly,

"What happens to this town? What keeps it from going to seed?"

The line, so far over the top, gets a laugh.

Act III degenerates into pure melodrama with poisonings, convulsions,

and collapsings. Seeing what is going on, Jim threatens to report

his old mentor and idol, to become his "Frankenstein." "I

didn’t create you!" Dr. Cook retorts, who proceeds to explain

and justify what he has done.

This farce has none of the horror of Nazi eugenics, nor does it bring

to mind Dr. Kevorkian, whose patients seek his assistance and will

their own deaths. The plot is less believable than the recent real

life example where a doctor in Manchester, England, treated elderly

women with overdoses of heroin. (In that case another doctor, asked

to co-sign the cremation certificates, became suspicious and triggered

an investigation. It was abandoned. It was only when the doctor had

his last victim change her will, leaving all her money to him, that

the woman’s daughter, a lawyer, became suspicious. Nothing so logical

happens in this account of Dr. Cook.)

You won’t see a play like this for many a year, if ever. Although

you, a lay person, may sometime have to make the God-like decision

— for another — of when to pull the plug.

— Joan Crespi

Dr. Cook’s Garden, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Through August 16. Fridays

and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m., with dessert served

an hour earlier. $22.50 & $2


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