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Theater review: Fresno City’s moving production ‘The Line’ focuses on New York healthcare workers

A New York intensive-care nurse up to his eyeballs in Covid panic learns that a favorite uncle has just been intubated because of the disease. A geriatric nurse who catches it at work has to throw her toddler grandson out of her bedroom so he won’t get it. An emergency-room physician of color notes that all of the people delivering his GrubHub orders are Black or Brown.

These are some of the characters in “The Line,” which is performed by the Fresno City College theater department as part of the Rogue Festival in a crisp, moving virtual production. (The final performance is 7 p.m. Saturday.)

Pictured above: Deep Rai, a professional Hollywood actor, plays a doctor in Fresno City College’s ‘The Line.’

Authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are well known for their penetrating documentary-style plays such as “The Exonerated” and “Coal Country,” which draw heavily on in-depth interviews. They shape these bits of oral history into intertwined narratives performed by actors. The result is often a powerful, direct-address connection between the audience and the performers. Because the characters don’t interact physically, it’s a perfect type of play to perform virtually.

Director Karina Balfour and video editor Steven Chin achieve a polished, professional look and feel to the production. There are no fancy sets. Instead, the backdrops are of living rooms, bedrooms, garages, home offices and even blank walls.

But there is visual interest: a guitar on the wall and a theater ticket taped on a bookshelf; a sliver of a med-school diploma. And the lighting elevates the material. The actors’ eyes, fiercely illuminated, seem to drill into the viewer (particularly if you’re able to stream the production on a big-screen TV). Those eyes lock into us with an intimacy that is hard to break.

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The stories are chilling, exasperating and sad. We have heard many of them before: the lack of protective equipment; the overrun intensive-care units; the grieving families unable to share last moments with their loved ones. There is the healthcare-worker-as-hero narrative — and then the please-don’t-call-me-a-hero counter narrative, as these exhausted workers unpack their emotions. You can easily get caught up in the angst and anguish of it all, but you can also marvel at the resilience of human beings under great pressure.


Related story: ROGUE PREVIEW: IN ‘THE LINE,’ FRESNO CITY COLLEGE AMPLIFIES THE VOICES OF PANDEMIC FIRST RESPONDERS

And, quite frankly, my reaction was to marvel (once again) at people who don’t plan to get the vaccine. Why would you want to risk ending up in the fraught, beeping, super-sterilized nightmare of a world these health-care professionals describe?

Adam Khouzam in ‘The Line.’

Deep Rai, a guest artist with the production, finds a lot to gnaw on in his E.R.-doctor character. A lot of people in New York didn’t have a place to escape to — no second house in the Hamptons, no working remotely from home. Rai — a Fresno State graduate who has worked on more than 20 network TV shows and will appear in Netflix’s upcoming “L.A.’s Finest” opposite Jessica Alba and Gabrielle Union — brings an intense, visceral presence to the role. Local professional actor tony sanders, as a weary paramedic, recounts his front-line stories with a grim grace.

Other standouts include Adam Khouzam, the nurse with the sick uncle, who muses about the similarities between celebration lines (at weddings) and sympathy lines (at funerals), and Nicole Turpin, the geriatric nurse with a feisty, combative streak when it comes to standing up for patients.

It’s an accomplished, assured production that quite effectively brings some special healthcare workers to life.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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