Chicago Theatre Review
‘Roz and Ray’ an intense telling of a most shameful history
Roz and Ray – Victory Gardens
‘Roz and Ray,’ which is receiving a most urgent and necessary staging at Victory Gardens Theatre, features one of themost striking stage designs I have seen in a Chicago play this year. Courtesy of Tim Mackabee, the stage is completely bare, yet plainly visible in the background is a tangled jungle of items – chairs, children’s toys, furniture – all painted an unsettling white. Despite the order on the stage before us, considerable chaos lingers in the margins.
It’s a wonderful metaphor for the play, which covers one of the more tragic (and lesser known) tragedies in recent American history. The action begins in the late ’70s, when single dad Ray (played by the charismatic James Vincent Meredith) has signed his sons up for a new treatment of their hemophilia, the genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots; because of that deficiency, small cuts lead to considerable bleeding, small bruises lead to considerable swelling, and internal bleeding is a constant risk. Their doctor is Roz Kagan (the incomparable Mary Beth Fisher), who is administering special proteins via injection to the boys’ blood, which plugs up their deficiencies and allows them to live more-normal lives.
The treatment is a terrific success, and much of the first half of ‘Roz and Ray’s intense 90 minutes trends towards happiness, as Ray’s sons live in relative safety and he and Roz slowly fall in love. Interjected amidst those happy scenes, though, is a flash forward to 1991, when Ray protests a fundraising drive for Roz’s hospital with a stark message: “Doctor Roz Kagan Killed My Song.”
That is the history ‘Roz and Ray’ so boldly explores through its fictional characters, and it is one that more Americans should know about. The injections that Dr. Kagan and hundreds of real-life doctors administered were possible through groundbreaking treatments in blood processing – treatments that utilized unscreened blood, which came from Americans infected with HIV. As a result, the country’s hemophilia population was administered injections for years with proteins from that infected blood, and more than 50 percent of the population eventually contracted HIV.
It is a huge testament to playwright Karen Hartman, director Chay Yew (who also helmed Victory Gardens’ sensational ‘This House Will Not Stand’), and the remarkable talents of Meredith and Fisher that ‘Roz and Ray’ never feels like a history lesson. The characters are allowed to breath and develop, and as the implications of Dr. Kagan’s treatments become more apparent, our hearts break not only for the suffering that so many people endured, but also for the flesh and blood characters before us on the stage.
Theater is an ecstatic art form because it allows for a much broader range of narratives than what film could ever provide – and plays such as ‘Roz and Ray’ fully realize that potential.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Dec. 11 by Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets are available by calling (773) 871-3000 or by visiting www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.