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theatre review

Waiting Room is inspired by the nine months the playwright spent at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with her second son.Cylla von Tiedemann

Ever since the fourth wall descended upon the theatre in the 19th century, dramatic characters have found themselves enclosed in rooms – and genres named after them. We've had the drawing-room comedy, the bedroom farce, the kitchen-sink drama ...

Now, it seems we're in the era of the waiting-room play. Less than three weeks into 2015 and already three new dramas have premiered in Toronto set partially or fully in hospitals as patients or their family members and friends await test results or the outcomes of medical procedures. There was Alison Lawrence's Piece by Piece at the Next Stage Theatre Festival; Maja Ardal's Her2 at Nightwood Theatre; and now, at the Tarragon Theatre and with the most on-the-nose title, Diane Flacks's Waiting Room.

Directed by Flacks's long-time collaborator Richard Greenblatt, Waiting Room gives us two couples in interwoven medical sagas.

Chrissie (Michelle Monteith) and Jeremy (Jordan Pettle) have a baby daughter named Jessica with a brain tumour. Jessica's in intensive care recovering from surgery – and her parents are in limbo awaiting the weekly scans to show whether the tumour is truly gone. When Jessica's pediatric brain surgeon does make an appearance with results after all the pacing and fretting, however, all they get is a 45-second walk and talk.

Meanwhile, Andre (Ari Cohen), "Dr. 45 Seconds" himself, has discovered he has early-onset Alzheimer's. A brilliant and arrogant risk-taker since his youth, he convinces his lover and colleague, Melissa (Jenny Young), to administer to him an experimental anti-dementia drug that's only been tested on rats to date. He feels he has nothing to lose, but thinks little of what he is asking Melissa to put at risk – especially when their superior Dr. Aayan (Warona Setshwaelo) starts sniffing around.

Waiting Room is inspired by the nine months Flacks spent in and around the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital with her second son. (He's now eight and healthy.) In the scenes between Chrissie and Jeremy – and another waiting-room veteran, Brenda (Jane Spidell) – you definitely feel like the playwright knows of what she writes: From the deeply personal conversations had with complete strangers, to the breast-pumping room nicknamed "Abu Ghraib", to the superficial but obsessive layman discussions of drugs and procedures.

The downside is that in giving in to the impulse to document this world truthfully, to testify to the experience of parents like Chrissie and Jeremy, Waiting Room can get bogged down in jargon and unnecessary details at the expense of character and plot.

Likewise, the arguments that erupt both in the waiting room and in Andre's office feel too on-the-nose, with characters neatly divided into opposite camps on the big questions like: Can a positive attitude really help with healing, or does a realistic attitude lead to better decision making? Is quality of life or length of life the most important aim of treatment? And, should you go on a coffee run to Starbucks or Tim Hortons?

Waiting Room is more successful when it finds ways to use these experiences to illuminate the fault lines in Chrissie and Jeremy's marriage, or the contradictions in Andre's personality. And after intermission, the plot picks up as the brain doctor can no longer trust his brain. Unsurprisingly for a play dealing with dementia and a baby hovering on the edge of death, tears are jerked (as far as I could tell, from the sniffs around me and my own, successfully).

Monteith and Cohen both do fine jobs of shading their characters in a production from Greenblatt that stays on the straight and narrow. Cameron Davis's projections on the walls of Kelly Wolf's set show us brain scans, medical studies – and the occasional glimpse of the porn that Jeremy surreptitiously glances at in the waiting room. That's a sharp detail – as is a silent, texted conversation that takes place between Chrissie and Jeremy early in the play. Both God and the devil are in the dramatic details here.

Waiting Room continues at the Tarragon Theatre through Feb. 15.