Chicago Theatre Review
Dancing Into Our Memory
The Baltimore Waltz – Brown Paper Box Company
This close brother and sister had always planned on enjoying a whirlwind European vacation together, however it wasn’t to be. Paula Vogel, a prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, responded in 1992 to her brother’s tragic death in 1988, from complications due to AIDS, with this one-act fantasy. Ms. Vogel stated that she couldn’t sew and, thus, wasn’t able to honor her brother by creating a square for the AIDS Quilt. So the playwright did what she did best: she wrote a fantasy about two siblings who, when the sister is diagnosed with a fictitious terminal disease, they decide to spend her final days on a hedonistic and educational tour of the European capitals.
In this deeply personal dramatic expression of love and grief, Vogel created an affectionate, yet quirky dream play. It’s the story of Carl, a children’s librarian from San Francisco, who’s ironically pink-slipped at the same time that his sister, Anna, a primary school teacher, receives the horrible news that she has a life-threatening illness. The doctor diagnoses Anna with the little-known Acquired Toilet Disease. It was contracted, supposedly, from germs left on the toilet seat of her elementary classroom. The brother and sister impulsively chuck everything and venture off to France, The Netherlands, Germany and points beyond, where Carl spends his time in pursuit of culture, while Anna’s determined to live out her final days having casual sex with every guy she meets.
The plot is a satire of how society thought a person became infected with AIDS. People speculated that the plague was spread by germs harboring in public bathroom stalls. Unorthodox cures from around the world, such as drinking one’s own urine, were tried and found useless. The population speculated that gay men were continually infecting each other and spreading the disease by having wild, unprotected sex—the trajectory that Anna pursues in this play.
In Vogel’s comic fantasia an actor called The Third Man, a tribute to the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, assumes the role of Anna’s doctor, as well as every other man that Anna and Carl meet. After Anna’s reckless and impulsive sexual adventures, the siblings decide to return back home. It’s at that time that reality hits and the fantasy dissolves into the dream. Anna must face the fact that she’s not in Europe, but Baltimore, and it’s her beloved brother Carl who’s been infected with an incurable disease. As he passes away, Carl and Anna dance around the truth of what’s happened, reliving their adoration for each other in a joyous waltz.
This production, which hasn’t been produced in Chicago in some time, is kind of a curiosity. It’s become almost a period piece. Younger theatergoers may find this play particularly confusing unless they’re familiar with its background. Ed Rutherford has directed this production with obvious love and compassion. Staged within the close confines of the intimate Frontier Theatre, he brings the story into the lap of its audience. Rutherford’s kept his vision simple and his supporting elements sparse, presenting the play against Jeremy Hollis’ cleverly creative, white-draped scenic design. The upstage curtains provide a wall until they’re pulled back to reveal a bed. Jeanine Fry’s costumes depict various occupations and exotic locales, often allowing for quick changes.
The three-hander features Jenna Schoppe playing a very believable, kindly young elementary school teacher, who refuses to accept that she’s dying. The pure love and devotion she shares with her brother is exceeded only by the abandon with which she attacks her whimsical sexual exploits. As Carl, Paul Michael Thomas takes the lead planning and executing the siblings’ sudden vacation adventure. Curiously, Carl carries a stuffed pink bunny with him, probably a nostalgic reminder of more innocent times together, but possibly a treasured item that will be traded for the secret miracle cure for Anna’s affliction. The bunny’s true significance is never made clear.
The star of this production, however, is Justin Harner as the intriguing, captivating and handsome Third Man. The actor’s sheer versatility in this demanding role showcases his talent at mastering dialects and creating completely new characterizations at the drop of a hat. That Harner makes each transition so seamlessly is a tribute to everything he’s brought to this production. From a funny Spy versus Spy espionage agent, to a physician at Johns Hopkins, from a flirtatious waiter to the Little Dutch Boy who saved Holland, Mr. Harner is a treat worth enjoying.
Paula Vogel’s unorthodox fantasy is her unconventional response to the death of her brother. It mirrors the early myths of the AIDS epidemic, but it does so behind a mask of comedy and fantasy. Audiences of a certain age may recognize this, but younger theatergoers, who are less familiar with a plague that devastated the gay population during the 80’s and 90’s, might see this 90-minute play as simply a bizarre comedy. They may, however, wonder about the strange ending involving a puzzling death of the wrong character. The reason for producing this play is similar for the resurrection of any period piece. It’s a heartfelt, humorous and beautifully written drama by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright that dances into our memory and remains until the last waltz.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 20-February 19 by Brown Paper Box Company at The Frontier, 1106 W Thorndale Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by going to www.brownpaperbox.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.