In science class, every child is taught that there are no failed experiments. Even if an experiment does not yield the desired results, it will still contribute to the sum total of our knowledge, provided it has been conducted accurately and ethically.
A different attitude prevails in the high-stakes world of medical research that San Jose Rep brings to life with Secret Order,. In this world, funding for research depends upon spectacular test results, and science can easily take a back seat to corporate greed and academic politics.
The hero of this dramatic, edge-of-your-seat play is William Shumway, a brilliant young researcher who has discovered a new method of fighting cancer—one that may lead to a cure. He is whisked away from his humble Midwestern lab and installed at a prestigious New York cancer institute, where he feels the allure of awards and untold renown, as well as pressure to publish his findings hastily and sell the idea to a drug company. Under these strains, the one-time idealist decides to cover up a troubling development in his experiments.
Once Dr. Shumway descends this slippery slope, it is impossible for the viewer to avoid a sinking feeling. His actions may be foolish, but James Wagner plays him sympathetically, and much of the blame lies with Shumway’s charismatic mentor, Dr. Brock, whom Robert Krakovski does a great job of portraying as someone you just can’t say “no” to.
Another player in the game is Saul Roth (Julian López-Morillas), a vindictive colleague of Dr. Brock. He knows something is amiss with Shumway’s research and seeks to expose it, not for the sake of scientific integrity but as a personal vendetta.
The only character that never loses sight of what is really important—fighting cancer—is Shumway’s chatterbox student Alice, played charmingly by Kathryn Tkel. Thankfully, the relationship between her and Shumway never leads to a contrived romantic subplot.
Secret Order is pure psychological drama, and it’s interesting that the playwright, Bob Clyman, is a practicing psychologist. The tough decisions with which his characters are faced make the play as suspenseful as any crime thriller. Snappy dialogue and Rick Lombardo’s fast-paced direction are complemented by the high-tech set design, which includes moving platforms and colorful projected backgrounds and by brief yet effective electronic music.
A San Jose Repertory Theatre production
Runs through Nov. 7; Wednesday at 8pm (plus Oct. 27 at 11am), Thursday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm, Sunday at 2pm, Tuesday at 7:30pm.
San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose.
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