- Ian Barford
Khassan Baiev’s story sounds like Hollywood blockbuster material. In the 1970s, the handsome Chechen native was a judo champion. He gave up athletics to become a surgeon. When Russia invaded Chechnya in 1994, Baiev was in the thick of the action. But he believed strongly enough in his Hippocratic oath to save the lives of both Russian soldiers and Chechen commanders, putting his own in danger. Both sides repeatedly arrested the doctor for his trouble, and he narrowly escaped two executions.
Baiev obtained political asylum in 2000 and brought his family to the U.S., where he wrote The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire with the help of journalists Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff. This week, the Weston Playhouse Theatre Company brings his story to the stage. Broadway actor Ian Barford plays Baiev in the one-man drama at the Weston’s OtherStages location.
This is the Weston’s first world premiere of an entire play, says director Malcolm Ewen. The theater presents scenes from a previously unproduced show each year as part of its national New Musical Award.
The story of the stage version of The Oath started three years ago when a young playwright named Gavin Broady, barely out of college, picked up a copy of Baiev’s book. He was riveted — both by what he learned about the complex Chechen conflict and by the book’s inherent drama. “The immediacy of it ... seemed to demand a live, performance-based retelling,” he writes in the Weston’s stage notes. Given the “interior conflict” Baiev described, Broady thought a single-actor format made sense.
Broady, who lives in Portland, Ore., wrote a theatrical treatment of the book and sent it to the Daniloffs. The two veteran Moscow correspondents had never heard of the playwright. So they decided to check him out with the folks at the Weston Playhouse — which is “right up the hill” from the Daniloffs’ summer home in Andover, Vt., notes Ewen.
One of Ewen’s colleagues knew people who’d taught Broady at Kenyon College and spoke highly of him. And so began a multiyear development of the manuscript: “When you’re doing a new play, you are the process,” says Ewen.
The challenge of The Oath, says Ewen — who’s also one of the Weston’s three coproducing directors — is transforming “a journalistic narrative into something more suited for the dramatic stage.” To avoid making the one-man play feel “like a lecture,” Broady and the production team worked to “get inside Khassan Baiev’s head.” Sometimes the stage version of Baiev soliloquizes; sometimes he reenacts events and dialogue.
In a one-person show, of course, casting is crucial. “We delayed the production one season in order to keep Ian involved,” says Ewen of Barford. The actor, a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, won acclaim for his work in the London and Broadway productions of August: Osage County.
The book version of The Oath drew praising blurbs from readers ranging from former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to actress Vanessa Redgrave. As the text becomes a play, “we’ve been trying to work on keeping it focused on the dramatic story, less of an agitprop political piece slanting one way or the other,” says Ewen. “It’s more about one man’s journey through war.”
The play encourages us to put ourselves in Baiev’s place, he says: “If we all had to face the horrible choices, the almost-impossible decisions he had to face on a daily basis, what do you do? Do you give up, or do you keep trying?”
Today, Baiev is still living his oath: While he can’t practice medicine in the U.S., he’s become a human rights advocate. Each summer he flies from Boston — where he lives with his wife and six children — to Chechnya to “continue the work of healing,” says Ewen. In his native land, Baiev applies his reconstructive surgical skills to children injured by the region’s many landmines. Birth defects caused by chemical weapons are also an ongoing problem.
Baiev returns to the States this week to spend the run of The Oath in Vermont, says Ewen. Attendees of the three Sunday matinees may get a chance to meet the story’s hero: Ewen says “he’ll probably be involved in postshow discussions, along with at least one of the Daniloffs.”
It’s a busy season for the Weston, which has been producing professional summer stock in its main Greek Revival building since 1937. Look for the Vermont premiere of the racy puppet musical Avenue Q later this month, and Christopher Lloyd headlining a production of Death of a Salesman in late August.
The Weston players used to tour the state each summer — a grueling process, says Ewen. Today, he knows theater fans in northern Vermont aren’t going to make the trip down to Weston on a whim. But, he says, “it’s our hope that, once you come down to see what we’re doing, you’ll make that decision now and then.”