CJD: The play

A neurologist turns his conflicted feelings about a patient's death into a piece of high-energy performance art

Nov 3, 2006
Carlin Flora
Neurologists toil in uncomfortable ambivalence, according to James Jordan, a medical resident at Case Western University. "You're consistently dealing with someone who has a disease that is intellectually fascinating and that reveals how a certain part of the brain works," he said. "But simultaneously, that person is suffering and perhaps dying."A particularly harrowing case in point for Jordan was that of a 60-year-old man with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. In just one month, the patient, a fellow baseball fan for whom Jordan developed a real affection, deteriorated completely. "It's the most horrifying disease I've come across." Jordan found a unique way of grappling with his conflicted feelings about having an experience that was simultaneously tragic and intellectually stimulating: He wrote a play called CJD and starred in it himself in a production in New York City.CJD was the first of Jordan's plays to be staged since 1996, when his series of five one-acts ran in Seattle. Around that time, Jordan, who had graduated from New York University with a degree in playwriting four years earlier, learned his wife was expecting their first child. "That's when I decided to pick a career that could actually pay the bills," he said. Reviving a childhood dream of becoming a doctor, he headed off to the Medical University of South Carolina. Throughout med school, Jordan kept one foot in the theater world by reviewing plays for the local newspaper. But his own dramatic output, by necessity, stalled out. Then, last year, New York's Untitled Theater Company #61 issued a call for submissions for NEUROfest, a month-long theater festival featuring plays about neurological conditions. "It all fell out pretty rapidly over the next two weeks," Jordan said of the writing process. CJD -- which includes piano playing and singing, a faux PowerPoint pharmaceutical presentation, and a steady barrage of video images -- combines scenes between Jordan and his patient with commentary on medicine, politics, and many of the "secular-humanist" themes that had been swirling around his head since his last theatrical piece. Mimicking the symptoms of the disease itself, the play becomes increasingly spastic and digressive, ending with a tribute to its deceased muse. "My criterion for choosing the plays is that they must have a firm scientific basis but also be good dramas," said Edward Einhorn, the artistic director of NEUROfest. "These conditions are extreme forms of what happens in the brain, and that's what good theater does -- it puts the human condition in an extreme on the stage." Jordan was the only working neurologist among the chosen; the rest were full-time playwrights. In fact, it was Jordan's first time performing solo, an undertaking in the spirit of his theatrical idols Spalding Gray and Laurie Anderson. And directing himself was the only way to participate in the festival while working the hospital's night float in Cleveland. "I flew back and forth every weekend," Jordan recalled. "It was a miserable month, but it was full of life." His current project -- which he says is just as creatively satisfying as writing CJD -- is putting together a research proposal on mirror neurons and autism. "Ideally, I would love to see patients, do research, teach, and write plays," he said. "But my family is still my top priority." "I'm really happy that I can write for the fun of it and not worry about the commercial aspects," he added. "I'm liberated in the academic world, too, by having another side of me. I don't feel the pressure of needing to get that NIH grant. I'd rather go off and write a play."Carlin Flora mail@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:CJD http://www.untitledtheater.com/plays/CJD.htmlUntitled Theater Company #61 http://www.untitledtheater.com/index.htmlNEUROfest http://www.untitledtheater.com/NEUROfest.htmlSpalding Grey http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/film/3546185.stmLaurie Anderson http://www.laurieanderson.com