“You don’t know who you are until you experience … tragedy,” Deborah Salem Smith, playwright-in-residence at Trinity Repertory Company, told students and medical professionals crowded in Pembroke Hall as she spoke about complicated reactions to medical malpractice Wednesday. The lecture, entitled “‘But I’m a Good Doctor': A Playwright Takes on Medical Malpractice,” was part of the Cogut Center for Humanities’ Creative Physician Series. Smith discussed her play, “Love Alone,” excerpts from which were read by two actors in the play and three actors in the Brown/Trinity MFA program.
“Love Alone” portrays the aftermath of an unsuccessful surgery when the patient’s family sues the doctor for malpractice. “It all begins with a personal story in my family,” Smith said of her motivation for writing the play. She went on to tell the story of her uncle, who was tragically hit and killed by a bus. Her grandmother forgave the bus driver and ended up forging a close relationship with him.
“You can be empowered by forgiveness,” Smith said, but forgiveness can also be difficult and complex. This idea, along with many medical malpractice depositions she read, became her inspiration for writing the play.
The four excerpts performed were pulled from scenes that provided both perspectives. Two of them showed a family’s coping process, and the other two showed how doctors deal with losing a patient and facing a medical malpractice suit.
After each scene was read, Smith spoke about her writing choices. For example, she explained her inclusion of the bag of a patient’s valuables that his or her family receives from the hospital if he or she dies in surgery. “The bag can become a symbol to the patient’s family of the absolute moment their lives changed. For this reason, it is present on stage throughout the play,” Smith said.
Smith’s inspiration came from her frustration with people simplifying such situations “into black and white terms,” she said, adding that she wanted to show the multiple sides of the story. Smith also said that theater is the perfect outlet for reminding us “of the humanity we all possess and share.”
Smith allotted time at the end of her lecture for questions and comments, and the audience expressed diverse reactions. Many relayed understanding and gratitude that Smith was taking on such a topic, but others questioned how some aspects were portrayed. One audience member commented that various components of the story seemed disconnected, but Smith responded that the play when shown in its entirety displays a more “complicated” situation.
“Love Alone,” which was recognized with an Honorable Mention by the Jane Chambers Playwriting Award and received the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, will be performed at Trinity Rep from Feb. 28 to May 27.