Plays dramatize disease without docu-drama feel

June 23, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Two one-act plays about diseases are the Vagabond Players' entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival. And, thanks to the playwrights' use of non-naturalistic devices, both "Silly Putty Man" and "Now Gotta Be Now" are more theatrical than the usual docu-drama-style handling of the subject.

The title of Greg Jenkins' "Silly Putty Man" comes from the main character's description of his physical condition due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Ed South explains to the audience that his mind is intact but his muscles are turning into silly putty.

Direct audience address is one of the elements Jenkins uses to reinforce his play's theatricality, as well as to emphasize the increasing disparity between South's mental and physical capabilities.

This effect is enhanced when South steps away from his immobilized body and expresses the thoughts his disease makes it physically impossible for him to verbalize. Under the direction of Lee Sapperstein, this maneuver is simply and adroitly achieved. When visitors pay a call on South in the hospital, they direct their conversation to his bathrobe -- which lies on the bed in lieu of the patient. Meanwhile, Jonathan Claiborne -- who portrays South with sensitivity and humor -- stands off to one side letting the audience in on the responses unheard by his visitors.

Impressive though this is, in other respects "Silly Putty Man" is more of a sketch than a fully realized one-act play. A subplot about a new computer that lets ALS patients communicate is essentially dropped. And except for the protagonist, the cast is one-dimensional: South's wisecracking doctor (Bob Hoff); a rude, inept reporter (Paul Campbell); and especially South's chilly, selfish wife (Rebecca Joseph). Only his teen-age daughter (Allyson Rosen) shows any affection for him and comes across as a well-rounded human being.

Mark Walston's "Now Gotta Be Now" is about AIDS, and like Cheryl West's groundbreaking drama, "Before It Hits Home," this play examines the disease's impact on the black community.

Although West's play also uses some non-naturalistic techniques, Walston relies on them to a far greater extent and for more didactic purposes. The patient in "Now Gotta Be Now" is a promising law student named James (Ron Williams), whose sleep is haunted by the ethereal figures of a Dream Boy and Dream Girl, played with dance-like grace by Brian Carlton and Kiatenai Stewart.

But flowing movements and occasional poetic dialogue cannot compensate for this duo's preachiness. As the play progresses, they spout statistics and, at one point, Dream Boy screams out some of the blatant terminology so often euphemized in sex education classes in the past. In fact, as directed by Laura Sligh, much of this slow-moving script feels like a lesson in AIDS education.

Even so, "Now Gotta Be Now" is relatively well-structured, and the principle characters, James and his mother (Annette Burton), undergo emotional changes and growth that earn the audience's empathy as well as sympathy.

The Vagabonds is presenting these one-acts at Fells Point Corner Theatre because previous delays in the Vags' renovations left it with overlapping productions ("Cole" opens Friday at the Vags' South Broadway facility). By making its unfinished second stage available for "Silly Putty Man" and "Now Gotta Be Now," Fells Point Corner has reinforced the type of cooperation on which this local playwrights festival was founded.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Silly Putty Man" and "Now Gotta Be Now"

Where: Vagabond Players at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. ** Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday

Tickets: $9

$ Call: (410) 563-9135

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