Cancer is the ultimate betrayer. Beginning as a rogue cell, it subverts the natural order, ignoring the body's own signals in its drive to fulfill an inexplicable biological imperative; it suborns healthy cells and twists them to its purposes, destroying them in the process. It is an implacable opponent. In the West Coast professional premiere of Bob Clyman's The Secret Order at the Laguna Playhouse, it is also an elegant metaphor for the shifting alliances, internecine rivalries and creeping ethical corruption among a group of cancer researchers who may be on the verge of a cure.
Doctor William Shumway (Zak Orth), a low-key researcher toiling in obscurity at an Illinois college, has developed an innovative method of treatment utilizing cellular manipulation that shows promising results in its early stages. His work catches the eye of the hard-charging Dr. Robert Brock (Daniel Von Bargen, a brilliant character actor perhaps best known for his inspired turn as the mad military school commandant on TV's Malcolm in the Middle), an early inspiration for Shumway who's now the chief administrator of a leading cancer institute in New York. Sensing the promise in Shumway's work, Brock urges the younger doctor to forgo further research and go straight to animal testing in the institute's lavishly funded labs. Despite reservations, Shumway agrees. Thus begins an escalating series of ethical and professional compromises fueled by the intense competition of high-end medical research, the cutthroat internal politics at the institute and the oddly compelling filial relationship that develops between the two doctors.
It is to Clyman's credit that when the ultimate transgression occurs, it doesn't appear to grow out of the more obvious motives such as greed or corruption; fear of disappointing someone you respect can be as powerful an inducement to self-destructive behavior as wealth or fame. Credit as well goes to director Michael Sexton (as well as to Narelle Sissons for smoothly efficient set design and Marc Rosenthal for creepy yet weirdly beautiful projections of magnified cancer cells) for a sleek, smartly paced and thought-provoking production full of authentic touches. Despite the heady subject matter, Sexton keeps the action grounded in genuine human emotion, reminding us once again that although illnesses such as cancer take a devastating toll, our own hearts can be the most insidious betrayers, twisting our good intentions and destroying us as slowly and as surely as any disease.
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Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 P.M.; Sat., 2 & 8 P.M.; Sun., 2 & 7 P.M. Thru June 29. $42-$49.