Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's docudrama The Line is about Covid-19 and how it has affected New Yorkers. It began airing last week through The Public Theater on YouTube. (The Public Theater/ The Line through August 4).
The Line is a straightforward, modest yet passionate and persuasive account of New York doctors, nurses and paramedics who have been performing the hands-on duties of dealing with the pandemic. For months New Yorkers have opened their windows at 7pm and banged on pans and applauded their work. Written by Blank and Jensen with insight, understated conviction and an eye for theatrical effect, the drama is enacted by a superb cast of professional actors – five men and two women – who speak directly to us from their jobs or homes. For me The Line was engrossing from start to finish and for the most part deeply moving.
The authors have mined similar terrains before, as in The Exonerated, which was a first-person narrative dealing with six wrongly convicted prison inmates. They also created The Aftermath, about Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, and more recently, Coal Country about the families of men who died in the 2010 American mine disaster. This time they fix their sights on a mysterious virus that is a worldwide crisis. The narrative, though intense, is never one-note somber but instead candid and direct with an undercurrent of emotional truth and leavened with humor. The account they have fashioned, comprised of short vignettes based on interviews with countless caregivers, is designed to make audiences understand and absorb what it must be like to try to save very sick patients from the coronavirus.
Each character tells us how they got into the medical profession. None of them expected to have to deal with anything as lethal as Covid-19 – the 16-hour days without breaks, death after death and so few slow recoveries. Ultimately, the stories they recount penetrate and leave an indelible mark on our consciousness. Though it may sound brutal, the 90 minutes zoom by under Blank’s skillful direction. The cast of protean talents – all seven actors have their standout moments – contribute to the success of the bare-bones production. I got a special kick out of Oscar’s (John Ortiz) paramedic talk, David’s (Santino Fontana) amusing transition from actor to nurse and Ed’s (Jamey Sheridan) diverse wartime training, which has made him into an unapologetic truth teller. But for me, the most affecting are the two women characters: Jennifer (Alison Pill) as a very young intern doctor and a very knowing one, and Grandma Sharon (Lorraine Toussaint), who works in a nursing home and refers to her geriatric patients as “gerrys” and somehow manages to survive her own terrible struggle with the coronavirus. The Line is a “now” docudrama that we are living every day.