It will never cease to amaze me how many fertility-related plays there are in London. As I work my way through as many as I can, I managed to catch Alexis Zegerman's play, The Fever Syndrome, during its world premiere at the Hampstead Theatre. The play takes place in a brownstone near Central Park in New York; I was immediately struck by the beautiful set: a multi-storey cross-section reminiscent of a dollhouse, allowing the audience to witness various intimate conversations between the characters throughout the play, while not losing sight of the wider storyline. It also provides an excellent reflection into the family dynamic we're about to witness – fractured and misaligned, in need of maintenance work. As it's set across the Atlantic, the actors adopted American accents – although at times these would wane, with their British accents creeping in, taking away from the otherwise immersive experience.
Robert Lindsay played Professor Richard Myers, a King Lear-esque fictional behemoth in the fertility field, contributing to the development of IVF and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Professor Myers has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and has 'almost died for a lifetime achievement award.' Lindsay carries himself the way any unapologetically elitist scientist with a God complex would, with plenty of high-brow intellectual comments peppered throughout. The drama unfolds over the 24 hours prior to the Lasker Awards, giving rise to 'Shakespearean levels of power plays' between each of Professor Myers's three children, revealing the extent to which their fate was all but written in their DNA.
The play's name refers to the rare genetic condition afflicting Professor Myers's granddaughter, Lily, an irony given his contributions to reproductive technologies. Her mother is Dot, Professor Myers's eldest daughter from his first marriage, predictably high-strung and overachieving yet 'perpetually dissatisfied', with a PhD in reproductive medicine, but yet 'isn't a real doctor,' as she's reminded. Her husband, Nate, is a disgraced academic, after plagiarising a PhD student's research as his own, and now works as a science teacher. Overly obsequious, he is desperate to restart his career with Professor Myers's help, despite the obvious lack of respect from the Myers clan.
Dot is resentful of her father's decision to marry again twice, with the latest wife, Megan, a particular thorn in her side. Although Megan is trying her hardest to keep up with Professor Myers's medical care, it isn't good enough for Dot. Megan is left feeling underappreciated and lonely, constantly fishing for validation as a result.
Professor Myers's second child, Thomas, is a sensitive artist, a quintessential middle child who feels like he's never enough for his father, especially as he was never academically gifted. Accompanying Thomas is his partner, Phillip, an ex-Marine with a drug history and Thomas' best interests at heart. Almost halfway through the first act, we finally meet Thomas' twin, Anthony, the golden child, a cryptocurrency investor. Although he seemingly could do no wrong, he reminded me a little too much of Arthur Miller's character Biff in Death of a Salesman, albeit updated for 2022. This suspicion was confirmed once we learned of the fate of the Myers' fortune, and why Megan is providing Professor Myers's care alone.
I enjoyed the drama's discussion of how IVF was seen as 'unravelling the moral fabric of society' during its advent in the 1980s. Zegerman had clearly researched the topic thoroughly, with thoughtful references to Bourn Hall and Clinton's passing of the Dickey Amendment which banned the use of federal funding for gun safety research. In addition to the fertility theme, the play portrays the difficulties and ethical issues that accompany raising a child with a chronic, incurable illness very well, with Dot breaking down near the tail end of the play, as she describes the pain she feels every time Lily's affliction flares up. Similarly, the challenge of caring for elderly relatives when it's clear their environment is unsuitable is presented well, leaving it to the audience to decide whether Dot was right to push Megan on her father's care provision.
There was so much more to The Fever Syndrome, which meant that it did feel overly packed at times, despite being almost three hours long. However, I left with dozens of thoughts swirling in my head, feeling moved and inspired by the drama, and looking forward to my next theatre visit.