Ed, a paramedic, hates the word “hero.” Played by veteran actor Jamey Sheridan in the Public Theater’s virtual play, “The Line,” Ed tells us that hero is a word “we use in the face of fear that separates us.” He’s been working in the field for 26 years and his cut-to-the-chase approach to life is indicative of what he’s endured. Ed and his colleagues typically “thrive in chaos,” but COVID-19, they soon learn, is no ordinary monster. The tumult it creates leaves an indelible mark on him and everyone else.
“The Line,” a documentary theater piece written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is an enthralling collection of seven stories gleaned from interviews, via Skype or FaceTime, with a diverse group of New York city health-care workers that details the fear, frenzy and loss they’ve gone through during the pandemic. Some of the actors talk of emergency calls skyrocketing from 3,000 a day to 7,000 a day and of too many patients dying. (The play is streaming on the Public Theater’s website and YouTube channel through Aug. 4. The Public is recommending you stream on a desktop or mobile device rather than on a TV.)
When the coronavirus hit, New York took a beating. The staggering number of cases and deaths at hospitals, senior living facilities and public housing projects prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to shut the city down. Media outlets reported on the city’s battle by highlighting grim photos of mass graves coupled with dire statistics. “The Line,” however, helps us feel a lot more than data points alone can. A cardiac-arrest patient an EMT saves in the ambulance later dies on a stretcher waiting for a hospital bed and half the residents in a nursing homes die of COVID.
We cross paths with real characters, though their names have been changed — Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint) a manager at a senior residential facility; Oscar (John Ortiz), who becomes an EMT after witnessing an emergency; and Vikram (Arjun Gupta), a doctor who comes down with the coronavirus at the end of a jog. Through a series of monologues, the stats they share become people the workers try to keep alive.
The crux of the play, at least to me, gets brought up early on by Vikram, when he points out that the virus exposes socio-economic disparities. Ethnic groups are more likely to require hospitalization and are more likely to die of COVID while census data show the poor and less educated are far more likely to be uninsured. As Vikram rides the subway, he notices that most people on the train during the shelter-in-place order are Black and brown people heading to or from work. After recovering from the coronavirus, Vikram puts in some time at a hospital in the Bronx. On his way there he passes public housing developments and he knows these are the people who will fill the hospital.
First-year intern Jennifer (Alison Pill), clad in green V-neck scrubs and a red outline on her face from PPE kept on too long, recalls a searing incident. She works at a public hospital in Brooklyn that’s understaffed and ill-equipped to handle the virus. Jennifer recalls patients lining both sides of the hallway and too few ventilators. To help, she jerry-rigs a taped-together workaround that she uses on a COVID patient in Room 9. It’s uncomfortable for the patient and he keeps taking the mask off prompting his oxygen levels to dip. Fed up, Jennifer tapes it to his face and checks on him nearly every hour. When she shows up for work the next morning, she finds out the patient was moved to a room where there weren’t direct eyes on him. When a tech went by to check the patient, he didn’t have a pulse. With tears in her eyes, she expresses her fury. “I worked so hard to keep him alive.”
The one-hour, superbly acted play has a seasoned cast who brings these gripping recollections to the digital screen with skill and respect. The cadence of their monologues feels so natural and embodied that a nearly 15-second silence half-way through the play still didn’t take away from it. There are moments of tenderness from Dwight (Nicholas Pinnock), a Trinidadian oncology nurse as he struggles with banning visitors to his ward during the pandemic. Oscar lets people say goodbye to their loved ones on the ambulance, “like a vigil. Like a small, little wake.” These acts of kindness from Dwight, Oscar and others help make tragedy bearable.
Making sure these acts, both great and small, stay in the script is probably due to Blank’s activist past. She believes storytelling has the power to transform us and help us "see our world in new ways." Blank and her husband Jensen have a knack for sharing inspiring tales in a bare-bones kind of way that leaves space for the audience to engage with the characters and the stories. Their award-winning work “The Exonerated” delivers true stories from former death row inmates; Aftermath” highlights Iraqi people whose lives were impacted by the war; and “Coal Country” centers on a tragic mining accident in West Virginia.
In each play, the story or the event shapes people’s lives. The actors In “The Line” talk about Ebola, SARS and H1N1, but it’s COVID they’re fearful of. Ed doesn’t like the word hero, but everyone who continues to do their job, nurses, doctors, janitors and others despite the fear, are part of the human chain that makes a difference. No matter what happens, he refuses to be the link that breaks.
Maybe that’s what heroism is.