With 'Baltimore Waltz,' Paula Vogel celebrates brother's love and loss

March 29, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In her notes to the published script of "The Baltimore Waltz," playwright Paula Vogel writes: "In 1986, my brother Carl invited me to join him in a joint excursion to Europe. Due to pressures of time and money, I declined, never dreaming that he was HIV-positive."

In 1988, Carl Vogel died of AIDS. His sister has described him as the person she loved the most. She was also one of his principal caretakers during his illness and treatment, which included participation in an early experimental program with the drug AZT at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"While I was in the halls at Johns Hopkins, I thought, well, I have to write this [play]. There's no other way to get through it," the Maryland-bred playwright explains. "But then, after he died, I thought, 'I will never write again.' "

A year and a half later, when she was in residence at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, the play "kind of exploded. I literally wrote the first draft in three weeks," she recalled during a recent visit to Center Stage, where "The Baltimore Waltz" will be presented beginning Saturday as part of the re:Discovery series.

Although the central characters in "The Baltimore Waltz" are based on her brother and herself -- Johns Hopkins Hospital also plays a prominent role -- the play is largely a fantasy, with a surprisingly offbeat comic strain.

The plot chronicles Vogel's imaginary trip to Europe with her brother. But her character is the one who's ill, and the illness is something called Acquired Toilet Disease. There's also a stuffed rabbit that serves as a leitmotif, though its exact meaning is never explained.

"I write plays to explore things that I may be scared of or may be hurting me. I like theater that makes me feel like it's a healing -- and comedy does that and fantasy does that," says the 40-year-old Vogel.

In this case, her inventive approach appears to have succeeded. "The Baltimore Waltz" has taken off faster than anything she's written in more than 20 years as a playwright -- the last seven of which have been spent as head of the graduate playwriting program at Brown University in Rhode Island.

"The Baltimore Waltz" premiered last month at off-Broadway's Circle Repertory Theatre, selling out its limited engagement. Next month it opens at the Alley Theater in Houston, and a Toronto production is slated for the 1992-1993 season. In addition, the script won fellowships for Vogel from the National -- Endowment for the Arts and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.

However, when this warm, effusive playwright discusses the play's success, she seems equally moved by the personal responses it has generated. "I'm getting letters from people I've never met," she says, sipping coffee in the theater's upstairs lounge. "I don't think people are seeing this as an AIDS play as much as, How do we deal with loss? How do we celebrate and commemorate? How are people still with us who have died? That's where the comedy comes in and the sense of uplift that I'm hearing that they're getting from this -- almost a jubilation. I want it to be like a really wonderful wake."

A native of Washington who grew up in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, Vogel is eagerly anticipating the play's reception in its title city. For, even though her most recent trips to Baltimore were spent in hospital corridors, she says she was "very impressed" with the medical care Carl received here and hopes some of his doctors will see the play.

Vogel also has positive childhood memories of Baltimore, particularly during Carl's undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins University. (Besides Carl, who was two years older, she has another brother, Mark, three years her senior -- a real estate jTC developer and former race track owner whose business dealings and other troubles have made headlines in recent years).

"Baltimore was a very adult city for me growing up," she says. "This was the place to go visit my older brother [Carl], see John Waters' films, eat wonderful food, go to the museums. This was the getting-away-from-suburban-Maryland place."

Her visits reflected her deep affection for Carl, who was a librarian in San Francisco before he became ill. "They were always extremely close," their mother, Phyllis R. Vogel, recalls from her Silver Spring home.

"As kids [Carl] used to save his allowance and take his sister by the hand and walk up to the candy story and spend his allowance to buy her candy." When he was ill, she continues, "[Paula] did all the dirty work. She was his caretaker, his emotional support."

The playwright also partly credits Carl with spurring her interest in theater. "Carl was in theater first," Vogel says of their years at Beltsville's High Point High School. "I saw him perform, and the next year I became a stage manager." By her senior year, she was writing revues parodying school productions.

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