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Review of Nurse!

By

Diana J. Mason, RN
Editor-in-Chief, American Journal of Nursing

and

Diane Roux-Lirange, RN
Clinical Editor, American Journal of Nursing

Nursing rating 3 1/2 stars
Artistic rating 2 1/2 stars
Meet the Fockers photo

When was the last time you saw a play that featured a leading character who was a nurse? Wit!, the Pulitzer-prize winning play about a literature professor dying of cancer, drew mixed reviews from the nursing community because of its portrayal of a nurse who seemed too humble, uneducated, and unassertive for a satisfactory public image of who we are, with the exception of a few Popsicle-and-lotion moments illustrating compassion and by a dramatic closing example of patient advocacy. In the end, many of us found Wit!’s nurse to be the hero, the sole guardian of caring in an inhumane health care system.

So it was with eager anticipation that we attended a Nurses’ Week performance of the play Nurse! at the off-Broadway Jose Quintero Theater in Manhattan that was sponsored by the New York State Nurses Association. Written and performed by Lisa Hayes, this one-woman play is a montage of characters involved in a nurses’ strike. The play is fiction, but based upon actual strikes by nurses at Buffalo’s Mercy Hospital and St. Catherine of Sienna Medical Center in Long Island, NY. Hayes acknowledges Barbara Bauch and Barbara Crane, who were involved in the strikes of these two hospitals, respectively. NYSNA represented the nurses at the 104-day strike at St. Catherine of Sienna.

Hayes plays 11 characters, including:

  • Sue, a nurse who leads her colleagues in the strike after working without a contract for too long and being repeatedly confronted with mandatory overtime; she struggles to keep her own and their morale high as a settlement eludes them, days without pay tick away while the nurses walk the picket line, travel nurses are brought in to replace them, and families feel the financial strain forcing many of the nurses to seek temporary jobs.
     
  • Rita, a former nun who is the archetypal nurse administrator, walking around the hospital with a clipboard, removed from the daily struggles of practicing nurses, admonishing the nurses that they are acting selfishly and without regard for their patients.
     
  • Mr. A., the cigar-toting hospital lawyer, who demeans the nurses, referring to them as ‘girls’ and vowing to outlast them; he wishes for a quick settlement to avoid having his wife work as a nurse in a vacated position.
     

The play reveals the wrenching, often immoral dilemma that nurses face with mandatory overtime—losing one’s job or failing and even endangering one’s family by staying at work. The exhaustion and frustration nurses experience from too many hours and patients also comes through.

Perhaps the highlight of the play is watching the unfolding of Sue’s commitment to a just settlement and cheerleading for her colleagues. Nurses in the audience cheer her refusal to accepting unsafe working conditions that cause nurse burnout and threaten the safety of patients.

The exclamation point in "Nurse!" won't follow the exclamation point in "Oklahoma!" into theatrical history, however. One wonders what those who were not nurses thought of the play. The characters are stereotypical, whether the good guys like Sue or the bad like Rita. They seemed almost cliched at times, perhaps undermining the play’s effectiveness and ability to reach a broader audience.

Producer Theordore Manekin told us that, as of May 13th, 2003, there were no reviews of the play by the New York critics. That night, the small theater was half full, and we fear that Nurse! is destined to be the play that lives on through performances sponsored only by nursing organizations.

Nevertheless, we commend Hayes for her understanding of the troubling issues confronting too many nurses and patients in today’s hospitals. In the program notes, she writes, “Nurses are too often taken for granted, and their courage and commitment overlooked.” The play’s director, Annie Levy, adds, “We are and will be as affected by the events and outcome of Nurse! as the nurses themselves. They are fighting for us. It is my hope that Nurse! finds its place in the continuous dialogue of the best and most compassionate way to provide quality health care in this country.” Nurses can support this aim by finding ways to bring the play to their communities, promote it the public, and facilitate post-performance discussions with the audience as was done with Wit!

Reviewed June 21, 2003

See actress Lisa Hayes' webpage on Nurse!

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