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Review: 'Who Lives?' at the Pico Playhouse

March 19, 2009 |  2:00 pm

Wl_0878March is National Kidney Month, which makes the docudrama "Who Lives?" only appropriate. Christopher Meeks' fact-based play about an anonymous citizens committee charged with deciding dialysis candidates receives an agreeable staging at Pico Playhouse.

Presented by the Renal Support Network, "Who Lives?" transpires in 1963 Seattle, as the silhouetted skyline along designer Will Pellegrini's set indicates. A classical violinist (Richard Adkins) eventually proves pivotal to a plot that follows attorney Gabriel Hornstein (Matt Gottlieb). After an opening scene of discord with wife Margaret (Monica Himmel), Gabriel's physical symptoms land him in the hospital. Despite the reluctance of resident Dr. Shuster (Matt Crabtree), hard-nosed Gabriel demands and gets the truth: end-stage renal disease, almost certainly terminal.

When the panel rejects his application, Gabriel tricks his way into facing the people he deems responsible for his death verdict. His legal-eagle badgering ends up putting both patient and doctor on the committee. Thus, against the Hornsteins' domestic unease and the ethical, social and spiritual quandaries raised behind closed doors, a morality tale unfolds.

It's handsomely appointed, with Catherine Glover's period costumes, Jeffrey Porter's sound and Jeremy Pivnick's lights giving the monochromatic decor depth of field. Under Joe Ochman's direction, so does the cast, starting with Gottlieb, whose middle-period Alan Arkin quality keeps us from hating his spiky character. Himmel underplays past some clich├ęs of dialogue, Crabtree's sensitivity is palpable, and their colleagues -- including real-life transplant recipients R. Martin Klein and Dale Wade Davis -- generally do yeoman work.

The sincerity of the entire enterprise goes as far as possible to counter the vagaries of an old-school script that occasionally suggests several Stanley Kramer screenplays at once. Given its singular intent, however, "Who Lives?" is respectable. Those who have personal experience with its topic should perhaps bring Kleenex.

--David C. Nichols

"Who Lives?" Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29. $20-$25. (866) 903-1728. Running time:  2 hours, 20 minutes.

Caption: Monica Himmel and Matt Gottlieb in "Who Lives?" at Pico Playhouse. Credit: Jodie Younse / Renal Support Network