The story mostly plays out at a Toronto prison where Danny, a Jewish legal-aid lawyer, has been assigned to defend Michael, a skinhead who freely admits to having brutally killed a Pakistani employee at a local Burger King. As these two repeatedly meet in an impersonal prison visiting room, the hostility is palpable. The attorney accuses his client of being a "white supremacist racist punk." The skinhead sneers back, "In an ideal world I'd see you eliminated."
When lawyer and client are thrust together in verbal combat, this two-character play throbs with the intensity of a splitting headache. Charlie Barron is making a total commitment to Michael. He has shaved his head. Gone is the naive persona Barron has practically copyrighted; here he is all intensity. At first Barron seems almost too intelligent an actor to portray a skinhead. Eventually we realize it's Michael's very intelligence that makes his spurious dogma all the more frightening.
Joel Lewis' attorney is a tinderbox ready to explode. Early in the evening Danny rolls up his sleeves to go to work. That's precisely what Lewis does. He concentrates every ounce of energy he can summon to pushing this story forward. Even when he is not speaking, Lewis is galvanizing. Watch him in the courtroom scene. As his client reads a prepared statement, Danny's ambivalence — shame at helping his client evade the full force of the law, pride in his own prowess — is eerier than the defendant's words. Lewis has to be the most misused, underappreciated actor in town. Unlike other more eager performers who rush from show to show with barely a pause, he is like a hibernating bear. But ever so occasionally — as he did in 2003 in In a Little World of Our Own and again last year in Death of a Salesman — Lewis comes clawing out from his lair to reassert his dominance. When he does, the unpredictability of his work is mesmerizing to watch.
Unfortunately, both actors are undermined by playwright David Gow, who is not content with confrontation. Cherry Docs is interspersed with a series of monologues intended to help us understand the two characters but which instead slow down the action. In a two-character play, we are not prone to care about the lawyer's unseen wife and law partners. When Danny describes the hassle he's receiving at his office for devoting too much time to this case, he sounds suspiciously like Fred Gailey, the do-gooder in Miracle on 34th Street who suffered the same criticism for defending Santa Claus (and then ended up with Maureen O'Hara).
Any flaws here are not the fault of the production, which was directed with economy and dispatch by Deanna Jent. But Cherry Docs needs cutting — not pruning, cutting. For starters, imagine how much more powerful it would be if the final ten minutes were lopped off. Granted: A play about hatred should not be easy to sit through. But better to be drained and discomforted by the volatility of the no-exit scenes rather than by self-indulgent excesses that have viewers looking for one.