Arena's bold AIDS play focuses on home, family

October 28, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Cheryl West's "Before It Hits Home," which had its professional premiere in Washington in 1991, was one of the first major dramas to deal with the impact of AIDS on the black community.

The script is bold in its use of language, in its depiction of disease and in its treatment of the protagonist's bisexuality. It is also the first play about acquired immune deficiency syndrome ever mounted by Arena Players.

The above description might make the script seem an uncharacteristic choice for a theater that usually presents less raw, confrontational fare. But praiseworthy as it is for the nation's oldest continuously operating black community theater to produce this hard-hitting drama, in another important sense "Before It Hits Home" is exactly the type of play with which Arena's audiences are most familiar.

The clue lies in the last word of the title. "Before It Hits Home" imparts a lot of essential information about AIDS, but it is above all a play about home and family -- specifically, about the nature and limitations of familial love.

When jazz saxophonist Wendal Bailey discovers he has AIDS, he tells his male lover, but can't bring himself to break the news to his girlfriend. (The necessity of informing sexual partners is one of the play's most harrowing lessons, and West imparts it with some of the play's most chillingly creative theatrical techniques.)

Weak and discouraged, Wendal -- given a moving and sympathetic portrayal by Jefferson Russell -- decides the best medicine would be a visit to his decent, loving, hard-working, middle-class parents.

Granted, his father constantly complains about his son's shortcomings, but his mother has always defended and even babied him. She defends him, that is, until he reveals that he is bisexual and has AIDS.

As unflattering as it is unsympathetic, the role of the mother is perhaps the most difficult in the play, and Nancy Barrick's uncompromising performance is as sharp and cold as a scalpel. At one point, when Russell's Wendal touches her in a plea for understanding, Barrick jerks her hand away as if it had been thrust into fire.

In contrast, Wendal's seemingly stern father is a heartwarming revelation. At Sunday's matinee, Edward Smith Jr. took a while to ease into the part, but when he found his rhythm, he was the embodiment of unconditional love -- the redeeming core of this harrowing script.

Although the story West tells is a straightforward domestic drama, the playwright employs several non-naturalistic techniques, exemplified by the time-and-space-defying simultaneous scenes in which Wendal attempts to inform his girlfriend and male lover about his illness.

Structurally reminiscent of the jazz riffs Wendal plays on his sax, these scenes can be hauntingly effective. But they require an abstract setting and sensibility. Instead, James A. Brown's set designs and Amini Johari-Courts' direction are too rooted in realism to let the jazz-like counterpoint sing out.

For most of the production, however, Johari-Courts and her cast are on firmer ground. West's script painfully and painstakingly strips the sentimentality from the stereotyped image of parental bTC love. And Arena Players' production conveys the play's tough, unvarnished truth with a power that hits home.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Before It Hits Home"

Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Sundays at 3 p.m.; through Nov. 14

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 728-6500

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