Review: Stage Left’s Man of the People Needs a Dose of Vigor and Chemistry

I was looking forward to Man of the People by Stage Left Theatre. Patent medicine and unbelievable ads in the back of my comic books were a particular fascination of mine. Dolores Díaz's new play tells the story of a real-life charlatan, con man, and bigamist who came up with a surgical cure for impotence in the 1930s. John R. Brinkley conned thousands of people with claims that goat gonad transplant surgery would cure many ills including a "flat tire." Man of the People starts off with the promise of brilliant satire and then goes for serious drama. As a result, it seems director Anna C. Bahow allowed the pacing to be ponderous, but there are other things that would have made two hours, including intermission, go by faster.

The search for eternal youth and virility has been around since the first acknowledged physicians. It is a topic that is relevant and probably always will be. Throughout the ages, men in particular have searched for a remedy to boost virility and allow them to procreate into their old age. Enter John R. Brinkley, who surgically planted goat gonads in humans and came up with other "cures" for every ailment from gout to infertility. Of course, he was also a politician and that puts him firmly in my con man triad of preachers, pimps, and politicians. Michael Peters does a fine job of presenting Brinkley as a man who believes that he is a medical doctor. The real Brinkley had a degree from an unaccredited Chicago school in "eclectic medicine," which translates as snake oil and patent medicine.

Joan Nahid plays Brinkley's wife and conspirator Minnie, and does not have the benefit of a back story with Díaz's script. Minerva Jones was born in Tennessee and yet Nahid plays her with an accent that sounds Spanish and not Southern belle. Nahid plays the character as petulant and desperate for a baby with Brinkley. It is not revealed that Brinkley was a bigamist with three daughters, which would have been a motivation for Minnie's need to have a baby. Also, the chemistry between John and Minnie is missing. Con men are charming and confident—thus con men. It didn't ring true that Nahid's Minnie was hot for Peters' Brinkley. A spontaneous "take me and give me a baby" sex scene was funny for the wrong reason; they are not a sexy couple and the scene felt more random than lust in the moment.

Michael Peters and Rob Koon Photo by David Heimann

Brinkley was taken down by a real doctor named Morris Fishbein (Andrew Bosworth), who edits the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). His help in taking down Brinkley is Dr. Maxwell (Shawn Smith). Bosworth and Smith lift the pacing and display the best chemistry in this play. Sandy Spatz plays Morris' mother Fanny who believes that Brinkley is a good man doing good for the people. The best comic relief in Man of the People is Rob Koon in a double role as a rube who complains about his "flat tire" and wants to rise to the occasion like his favorite goat and give his wife a baby. Koon also plays a judge in a court case against Brinkley.

The cast is capable but not as cohesive as they could be with better pacing and even a different take on Brinkley's story. The stage design is by Jonathan Berg Einhorn who designed the quirky and fun set of Priscilla Queen of the Desert earlier this year at the Mercury Theater. The antique radios and furniture are of the era and Ellie Humphrys' lighting design gives off a nice sepia glow that gives a 1930s vibe.

Shawn Smith, Sandy Spatz, and Andrew Bosworth. Photo by David Heimann.

Brinkley had a radio show that he used to promote his various miracle cures as well as interviews and music. He put his own son in a radio commercial to prove the validity of his gonad surgery. He also ran for governor of Kansas twice and almost won by creating a cult of personality through the media. Gee, where have we seen this before? Man of the People has promise and needs an injection of backstory to flesh out some gaps and quicker pacing to shorten the run time. By my count, it clocked in at 2 hours and 20 minutes including an intermission. You might want one of those energy drinks if you decide to see this play. If you want a better lesson in quackery, the International Museum of Surgical Science at 1524 N. Lake Shore Drive has a great display of a 19th century apothecary with patent medicine.

Stage Left Theatre's Man of the People runs through November 20 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets are $35 to $40. Student tickets are available for $25. Check the website for times and details.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.