Last Saturday at the Robert Cohen Theatre, award-winning playwright Luke Yankee’s “The Man Who Killed the Cure” enjoyed its grand premier to the boom of a standing ovation. Directed and produced by Yankee’s longterm creative partner, husband and UCI’s Vice-Chair of Drama, Don Hill, this production unfolds from the true story of Dr. Max Gerson, a German-born physician who in 1936 escaped the Nazi regime in Hamburg for New York City where he earned his American medical license. He then established a private practice so peculiar and unorthodox that it landed him under the scrutiny of the American Medical Association (AMA).
So, what made Dr. Gerson so suspect? Coffee enemas— for detox, of course. Vitamin-flush liver extract injections. And fresh-pressed, organic fruit and vegetable juice. Now known as Gerson therapy, this dietary, holistic approach to treatment seemed silly and anachronistic during the 1940s golden age of the modern pharmaceutical industry, with all its high-torque tech, innovation and enabling protections afforded by nascent drug patent laws. But Dr. Gerson, disenchanted by the toxic drugs sanctioned by the AMA, refined his regimen to target his patients’ cancers. He amassed case reports and solicited promising reviews of the treatment from his peers. And the AMA and other “establishment” guilds took cautious notice, bordering paranoia.
All came to a head in summer 1946 when American Senators Claude Pepper and Matthew Neely proposed a bill that would disperse $10 million among clinicians if they could demonstrate the potential of their cure for cancer, no matter their approach. At the Senators’ invitation, Dr. Gerson and five of his cured patients (all written off as terminal, before Dr. Gerson’s care) presented so compelling a case that Senator Pepper called an ad hoc press conference for the nation to hear the hopeful news.
Cue: the shadowy, monied influence of a budding medical-pharmaceutical complex that has courted Capitol journalists with, ironically, an anti-Gerson roast beef and booze banquet. Yet, one ABC correspondent dodged the honeytrap and broadcasted Dr. Gerson’s message across the nation’s airwaves and the nation phoned in en masse. Again, the suppressive spectre of Big Pharma threatened to choke millions in ad contract dollars from ABC if they didn’t wear their muzzle; on the hill, four Senators (ex-physicians, no less) buried the bill in bureaucratic stasis. And as for Dr. Gerson, well, he was poisoned. With arsenic, administered by none other than a Big Pharma pawn.
This is the built-in premise of Yankee’s play: to cast in binary, almost simplistic relief Max Gerson as messiah and martyr, the homeopath Prometheus interrupted by big, bad, soulless Pharma. It’s obvious from the first act what Yankee’s slant is: Dr. Gerson (Tom Juarez) observes that fertilized soil is devoid of organic life; that he imparts hope to patients battered by chemical treatments; that he’s prodigiously prescient to the danger of cigarettes, processed food and liquor; that an apple— or a dozen— a day literally does keep the wasting disease away. Juarez plays the miracle-man with easy vitality, an expert single-mindedness that suits the character. But his is a narrative that carries complicated implications, especially for any scientists in attendance.
Yankee’s vision of scientific validity breeds a didactic New Ageism that makes the outsider “skeptic” hero’s alternative option precious, a morally sterile leap of faith, despite all evidence otherwise. And Yankee seems to relish in provoking this shake-up. Don Hill has his back and says, “This play is a morality play, and I look at it as a whistleblower play. It’s anti-big business, anti-corruption in the medical industry.”
“The theater is meant to piss people off,” Hill says to scientists. “I want those people to come in with their preconceptions and their discomfort… I want them to be challenged and come out thinking about new ideas.”
Maybe the conceit of this historical play is that its actual subject isn’t Max Gerson or even the veracity of his medicine, but rather his dearest friend, compatriot and, ultimately, murderer. Rudolph Heller (Noah Wagner) is our way into Dr. Gerson and the industry set out to destroy him; he is the ambiguous gray between the moralistic titans.
“Think of him as the Salieri to Max Gerson’s Amadeus,” explains Yankee.
Wagner embodies Heller with great stamina, capturing the composite character’s multiplex motivations: deep envy of Max Gerson’s purpose, the dirty rush of ambition when playing lapdog for oil-slick drug peddler Carmichael (David Sasik), his psychic degradation opposite his lover Helga (Melissa Musial). And perhaps Heller’s most interesting facet is in reference to Hedda Gabler, 19th century playwright Henrik Ibsen’s neurotic maiden, where he performs a deconstruction or total inversion of her. Because in Yankee’s New York, the contained depravities that haunt Hedda’s psyche Yankee unleashes to haunt the world itself.