Ho-Hum's the Word: Secret Order will tax your brain but not your heart

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis begins this year's Studio series with Secret Order, an old-fashioned morality play aimed at a 21st-century audience. This fast-paced cautionary tale, which plays out behind the scenes at "the best cancer-research institute in the world," reminds us that even the noblest intentions can become polluted by such age-old failings as blind ambition.

Despite the technical jargon author Bob Clyman (who is himself a clinical psychologist) has layered into his 2007 script, the characters here are clear-cut. At the outset Richard Shumway (Todd Lawson) is an idealistic cell researcher who just might have found a cure for cancer. "All that matters to me is the science," the promising young Shumway enthuses. But "promising" should never be enough, counters crusty administrator Robert Brock (Richmond Hoxie). He lures Shumway away from the University of Illinois and brings him to the Hill-Matheson Institute in New York. "Think of this as a simple business decision," Brock tells his board as he seeks funding for Shumway's research. "William Shumway is beachfront property." Alice (Angela Lin), a sassy young student in pursuit of "one great spectacular idea," provides an occasional fulcrum between idealist and pragmatist. (A fourth character, a researcher lethargically portrayed by Stan Lachow, does little more than stir up trouble.)

At the outset, thanks to a lot of brisk, snappy dialogue, the action moves quickly. But it might be moving too quickly, because the play never takes the time to establish its universe. Its 26 scenes move all over the place — from labs to offices to airport concourses — and Mark Wilson's sketchy scenic design is barely able to keep up with the changes. Occasionally Wilson's lighting design throws shadows from window blinds onto the walls, lending an aura of prison bars and captivity. But in this production directed by Risa Brainin, we never feel the thrill, much less the danger, of being exposed to this inner sanctum.

Soft cell: Todd Lawson in Secret Order.
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Soft cell: Todd Lawson in Secret Order.

In the program notes, costume designer Lou Bird writes about the importance of small details like the clearance cards the characters wear around their necks. That makes sense. Secret Order, after all, transpires in a high-risk, high-security environment. Yet the young student Alice talks her way into Dr. Brock's office without a sweat and then enters Shumway's privileged lab as easily as if she were going to the grocery store. If the playwright had given as much attention to the details of his story as he does to his ethical arguments — if he had approached his characters as people rather than as mouthpieces for opposing points of view — it wouldn't be left to the costume designer to have to create their world for them.

If there are problems here, the actors are not to blame. Richmond Hoxie transforms Brock into a kind of walking time bomb. After a lifetime of anger, disappointment and inflated self-importance, this man is about to explode. Hoxie's head becomes a kind of cork, and the angrier he gets, the more deeply embedded that cork sinks into his bottle-like body. There are times when you think Hoxie's head might disappear altogether. On film, this kind of effect would be created with computer graphics; here Hoxie is live onstage, and compelling. Todd Lawson is also fine as the young researcher whose standards and ethics are constantly being tested and rearranged.

But the play lets them down, perhaps because the author would not agree that what is most affecting here is the ambiguous, often aggravating yet ultimately affecting relationship — both professional and personal — between these two father-and-son-like characters. (Had the playwright realized that these two men provided the play with its spine, no way would he have ended the evening with an unnecessary final scene that involves neither of them.) So it is that although as an intellectual exercise Secret Order is constantly absorbing, as an evening of theater it only rarely becomes involving.

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