I Can’t Believe It’s Not Harriman-Leavey Syndrome

As I mentioned to the company at the start of the first rehearsal for The Realistic Jones, I at first wasn’t sure how to dramaturg the play. I am not in the business of answering life’s biggest questions for complete strangers (mainly because I can’t pretend to have these answers in the first place). Dramaturgy as I’ve come to know it can’t tell you—as actor, as designer, as audience member—how to feel about death or marriage or terminal illness, because your answers will be different from the person sitting next to you.  That is the terrifyingly wonderful part of being human, and the most frustrating part of contemporary dramaturgy.

So what was a dramaturg to do with Will Eno, a playwright who dares to confront us with the banality of life and the vastness of death in the span of 100 minutes in the theatre? The disease is fake, the language is contemporary, the location a rural anonymous town somewhere near the mountains. I couldn’t prescribe my general rules of dramaturgy to this process. I had to get creative.

I found myself returning to a question director John Rensenhouse poised at our first production meeting: how do we make a fake disease seem, well, realistic?

Like any paranoid person with a list of inexplicable symptoms, I started with WebMD. Harriman-Leavey Syndrome, what we later find out Bob was diagnosed with, isn’t a real disease, but it does share symptoms with real degenerative nerve disorders like it. The problem is that the symptoms aren’t outlined in an easy-to-read online list and the cure isn’t something you can find behind the counter.

Eno does provide a map for figuring out just what Harriman-Leavey Syndrome is, at least for the realistic characters in his play. As a playwright, Eno is a specialist in his own way. He just utilizes words where a doctor might use tests to get to the root cause of a problem. So I re-read The Realistic Joneses, searching for the clues I knew Eno had planted and found that the symptoms have been under our noses, between the lines, throughout the script, the entire time. They are revealed slowly, subtly, in nonverbal gestures and unspoken—yet palpable—thoughts. There is a truth in the ignorance, an honesty in the fear that this might be the sign of no turning back, the slow march to eventual death.

Memory loss, difficulty sleepy, lack of coordination, sudden loss of sight, tremors and seizures. These symptoms are also on lists of other real degenerative nerve diseases, like Huntington’s or Lou Gehrig’s. So much research into the very real world of terminal illness diagnosis had me wondering why Eno wouldn’t just use one of these real diseases in the first place? Wouldn’t that make this world and the Joneses a little easier to understand?

Returning to John’s question—how do we make a fake disease seem real?—I turned to one of the most realistic parts of medical diagnosis: the waiting room pamphlet. I connected the dots between the script and reality to make Harriman-Leavey Disease seem like a disease you might pick up a pamphlet to learn more about, a disease that WebMD might take you when you type in “sudden onset of headache” or “loss of muscle strength” as your symptoms.

Eno is not a doctor, and his play is not prescriptive. You won’t walk out of the theatre wondering if you have Harriman-Leavey Syndrome because the syndrome simply does not exist. We will walk out of the theatre a little more aware of our mortality, a little more conscious of our missteps, but the play is not a diagnosis. It is a contemplation on what happens when we can’t find the right words to explain ourselves, or each other, or the world at large. What forms of expression are left when we can’t find the right words?

Eno has the theatre. I have dramaturgy. You might have paint or paper or music notes. In the end, we all have art. The rest is silence.

–Alyson Germinder

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