'Patient A': Arty imitation of life, artfully done Theater review: Play puts heavy emphasis on issues surrounding death of woman who got AIDS from dentist.

March 13, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When the parents of Kimberly Bergalis the young Florida woman who died in 1991 of AIDS contracted from her dentist asked playwright Lee Blessing to write a play about her, they probably expected to see their daughter portrayed as a martyr. What they may not have expected was to see the notion of "innocent victims" excoriated on stage.

Blessing's self-consciously theatrical play, which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at AXIS Theatre under Brian Klaas' direction, suffers from being more about issues than characters. But those issues are compelling ones. And by staging the play in a way that emphasizes its "stagy" nature, Klaas brings a sense of art to a work that could easily become all artifice.

One of the most arty aspects of "Patient A" shows up in the opening lines, when Lee (Mark Bernier), the character representing the playwright, begins quoting Andrew Marvel's 17th-century poem, "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn." The poem, which is threaded throughout the play, concerns the loss of innocence, as Lee explains to the frequently exasperated Kim (Mary Anne Perry Karkaria), who would clearly prefer less poetry and more of her own story.

But the loss of innocence is central to Blessing's thesis. Not that he means to suggest that Kim who appeared to have none of the known AIDS risk factors was anything but. Instead, he extends the belief that there are no innocent AIDS victims one step further. "The opposite of innocence is not guilt. It's knowledge," Lee proclaims in the end. Therefore, as Kim correctly extrapolates, "We're in the dark."

"Patient A" attempts to shed light in the darkness, though it does so in a fairly didactic manner. Besides Lee's poetic interludes and his penchant for statistics, Blessing throws in a choral character named Matthew (Stephen Antonsen), who assumes roles ranging from Kim's mother to a homosexual patient with acquired immune deficiency syndrome Kim meets in a support group.

Blessing sets up various conflicts between these characters. Both Kim and Matthew repeatedly object to Lee's theatrical demands. And Matthew offers strong opposition to the Kimberly Bergalis Patient and Health Providers' Protection Act, which was proposed in Congress and supported by right-wing Republicans, though it never came up for a vote. "The only solution to this epidemic lies in the work of the medical community. We can't turn them into a persecuted class," Matthew protests.

As this quote suggests, "Patient A" is ultimately more debate than drama. The three-member cast works valiantly to keep the debate lively. In particular, Karkaria effectively conveys Kim's religious faith, and Bernier just as effectively conveys Lee's lack of it.

In addition, director Klaas successfully reinforces the play's theatricality through such devices as allowing the audience to hear the cues spoken from the light booth. Granted, a few of these devices prove obtrusive (the use of synchronized hand gestures and simultaneous video broadcasts, for example). But the script's structure is obtrusive in and of itself. Blessing's approach admirably avoided turning Bergalis' story into yet another docudrama, but even AXIS' best efforts cannot keep it from becoming a soapbox, however noble.

'Patient A'

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinee March 31; through April 6

Tickets: $12 and $14

% Call: (410) 243-5237

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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