'Baltimore Waltz' dramatized loss, both public and private MEMORABLE MOMENTS

December 27, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It comes back in a flash -- the piercing, visceral impact of Center Stage's production of Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz" last April.

Before I took my seat in the theater, I had read the play and interviewed the playwright; I felt I was prepared for a highly emotional experience. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-rending blow dealt by this brilliant, inventive, magnificently realized work, in which a Maryland-bred playwright used fantasy, humor and, most of all, imagination to come to terms with the loss of her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988.

Merely writing about this play again summons the mourning that engulfed me as I walked back to The Sun to write my review after a matinee. Vogel had told me that when she watched her play, she could sense which audience members were part of what she described as the community of loss.

In my case, my membership in that community was occasioned DTC by my father's death from congestive heart failure a year earlier. I believed I had reached a plateau of acceptance by the time I saw "The Baltimore Waltz." But in the final scene, when actress Kristine Nielsen, playing the character who represented Vogel, pulled her brother's corpse off the hospital gurney and tried to force it back to life, I was transported to my father's room in that last moment, and I knew exactly how she felt.

Stunned by the unexpected onslaught of these memories, I entered the office and was immediately informed by a copy editor that tennis star Arthur Ashe had just announced he has AIDS. Partly to avoid the interruptions of my telephone, I went to the sports department to write my review. Sports columnists and reporters were busily calling up wire service stories on Ashe, while television sets around the newsroom were tuned to his press conference.

I mentioned Ashe in my review, which lavishly praised the wonderfully theatrical way in which the play used a make-believe world of childlike innocence, comic cliches and absurdity to illuminate and demystify not only the dreadful disease of AIDS, but death itself.

But the review wasn't enough to express the many levels on which this landmark play succeeded. Anne Bogart, who directed the New York premiere, had described "The Baltimore Waltz" as a harbinger of a second generation of AIDS plays, more and more of which were showing up on area stages. That seemed ample reason to take a more in-depth look at these new works, which have moved beyond the informational, docudrama approach and begun to treat the subject more metaphorically.

For example, AIDS is never mentioned in "The Baltimore Waltz"; instead, the affliction is called Acquired Toilet Disease, and the patient is the sister, not the brother. The approach is even subtler in Craig Lucas' "Prelude to a Kiss," in which a sickly old man trades bodies with a healthy young bride. Produced at Olney Theater last spring, it was released as a movie during the summer and will be restaged by Theatre Hopkins in the spring.

In Scott McPherson's "Marvin's Room," presented at Washington's Kennedy Center in September, a middle-aged woman who has devoted her adult life to caring for her ailing father and aunt suddenly discovers she has leukemia. Once again, there are no references to AIDS, but the playwright was reportedly disappointed when reviews of the Chicago debut failed to draw the connection. Perhaps that was one reason the Kennedy Center program included a note by McPherson, who died of AIDS in November.

Lately, one of the best indications of the prevalence of this new wave of AIDS plays has been the publicity surrounding Tony Kushner's "Angels in America." Although this two-part epic repeatedly refers to AIDS, it can be described as a second-generation work due to its immense creativity. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the script encompasses settings from Washington to Salt Lake City to Antarctica and characters ranging from two fictitious couples to such real-life figures as Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg -- and, oh yes, there's also an angel.

Earlier this month, "Angels in America," which recently ended a hit run at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, became the unlikely object of a Broadway bidding war. The upshot is that the four-hour first half, "Millennium Approaches," is now slated for an April opening at New York's Walter Kerr Theater.

This flurry of interest is heartening in terms of the acceptance of difficult subject matter. And, artistically, the move to metaphor is a welcome development. But at the same time, the preponderance of these plays is a sad and disturbing comment on a disease that has become so widespread that audiences recognize it even when it isn't identified by name.

Drama, at its most powerful, is a form of communion, a shared experience in which theatergoers are enriched and changed by what they witness on stage. The experience of seeing "The Baltimore Waltz" at Center Stage is always with me. The play's theme of loss touched me personally, and its content extended those feelings into the broader context of one of the most dire and important issues of our time. Theater doesn't get much better than that.

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