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A new play pokes fun at medical paranoia
In October of 2014, Miranda Rose Hall was briefly convinced she was about to die, and that's when she got the inspiration for her latest play.
The seeds of the script were planted earlier that year when Ebola began ravaging West Africa. Hall knew she wanted to address the outbreak, but she wasn't sure how to write about it until the specter of infection came to New Haven, where she's currently studying playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.
The perceived threat arrived when Ryan Boyko, a Yale University graduate student in Public Health, returned from Liberia after helping fight Ebola there. Shortly after, he showed signs of the illness and was quarantined. When the news broke, panic spread across campus faster than any virus. As Hall recalls, "That afternoon I spent planning my death from Ebola."
Before she could write her will, however, she started laughing at her own paranoia. She knew her fears were irrational and that her risk of infection infinitesimal at best.
That's when she decided to explore the wild-eyed, arm-waving terror aroused by Boyko’s condition. In her play How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, a young social scientist named Neil arrives in the United States from an unnamed foreign country having contracted a deadly disease. His ailment doesn't earn him much support from hospital workers. When Hannah, a nurse, learns of his condition, she asks, "Do you know deep in your heart that you are a threat to our community?" Her question is indelicate, to be sure, but the truth of it becomes clear as Neil infects more and more patients.
For the tone and language of the show, which runs at Yale Cabaret (in New Haven) from February 4-6, Hall looked to Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco. How We Died echoes the intentional nonsense of his 1950 play The Bald Soprano, whose dialogue consists almost wholly of brainless platitudes. In Hall's script, for instance, when Hannah asks Neil to name the foreign countries he's visited, she tries to guess the answer by rattling off more than 20 random names: "Henry, Daniel, Gustav, Jasmine," and so on. Hall uses this gesture to jab at medical officials' ludicrously obsessive, and frequently xenophobic, thoroughness in identifying threats from abroad.
Hall's vision of the disease also recalls Ionesco's absurdism. Ebola, you'll recall, is a ghastly affliction, causing the infected to bleed from their eyes, ears, and other orifices. The patients in Hall's play also produce a worrying excretion – in this case, guacamole.
Details like these help Hall convert her terror into comedy. But that doesn't change the fact that the initial fear was real – for her and countless others. Americans are highly susceptible to such paranoia and will always have some disease to fret about, and that's why Hall believes her play will remain relevant, even though the Ebola epidemic has all but vanished from the news. Those unafraid of infection are welcome to see the show for themselves.
Gavin Whitehead is a writer, dramaturg, and current student at Yale School of Drama.
Rehearsal photo courtesy of the production.