Medical Breakthrough

What a relief finally to see a perfect production of The Baltimore Waltz.

I've witnessed four near-miss interpretations of this difficult play by other companies, but the Actors Theatre of Phoenix production currently at the Herberger is so well-realized that I discovered elements I didn't realize I was missing when I'd seen the show before.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel in memory of her brother, who died of AIDS, The Baltimore Waltz was the first play to treat the epidemic with something other than morbidity. It's a sophisticated send-up of sex and circumstances, a dream play that swings out in anger at mortality and the forces that contribute to it.

Vogel puts a reverse spin on reality by giving her heterosexual heroine, Anna (Cathy Dresbach), a deadly disease called ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease). The illness, which is contracted from toilet seats, mostly affects single schoolteachers between the ages of 24 and 40. When Anna (a first grade teacher whose students have abominable bathroom habits) is diagnosed, she and her brother Carl (J.R. Robinson) take off on an imaginary trip to Europe -- the very trip that, the program notes tell us, Vogel and her brother planned but never took.

What follows is a melee of hypererotic scenes full of film references and vitriol aimed at the medical industry. Anna and Carl search for happiness in Europe -- he in reminiscences, she in food and sex -- and an obscure Viennese doctor whose cure involves drinking urine. Carl tries repeatedly to bring the beauty and culture of Europe to his sister, most movingly with a slide show of places they might have visited together, but Anna is interested only in, as she puts, "fucking her brains out." The play winds up on a Ferris wheel in Vienna, in a scene some playgoers will recognize from the Orson Welles film The Third Man.

The story, told in a single 90-minute act, moves fast, and the morals lessons come even faster. Anna is afraid of language, and Vogel pronounces that fear in the technical jargon of the medical world and the indecipherable words of the foreign countries Anna's never dreamt of visiting. Once she's diagnosed, the chaos and disdainful attitudes Anna endures are a wicked commentary on the discrimination against people with AIDS. Vogel ridicules American medicine's slow response to the pandemic and the huge medical bureaucracy that has grown up around AIDS with zingers aimed at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration. And, with Anna's voracious appetite for French food and French men, Vogel is making a heartfelt comment on the overindulgence of a generation of men whose lives were cut short.

Vogel's story often defies logic, and its fever pitch and lightning-quick costume changes require a more-than-capable cast. Dresbach gives a sparkling performance as Anna. Her role runs the gamut -- drama, comedy, bathos -- and she's delightful all the way through. Whether impersonating Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights or enacting Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' six stages of terminal illness, Dresbach's intelligence burns away the script's occasionally puzzling excesses.

Her quick wit is the perfect foil for the slow burns of Robinson as the put-upon brother. He brings a certain grace to scenes with Dresbach in which they recall their childhood, scenes that have always made me squirm, since they often commence in bed with brother and sister cuddling and kissing as they reminisce.

Comic actor Jon Gentry's name in the cast list always means a tremendous display of talent and at least one over-the-top characterization. He's seen here in several, most notably a wooden-shoe-wearing, Buster Brown-bewigged Dutch boy; a lunatic, pee-drinking quack; and, atop that infamous Ferris wheel, the Harry Lime character from The Third Man.

Director Victoria Holloway should be handed a palm for making such perfect sense of a manic script, and for wisely choosing to hand a good portion of the physical action to a fourth actor. Ken Matthews moves set pieces, announces scenes and handles the smaller ensemble roles with great style; in one memorable scene, he plays a bellboy whom Anna is seducing, with all of his lines read by a languid Gentry, who is seated next to the bed.

Holloway's imaginative use of props -- a couple of straight-backed chairs, a hospital bed, a white sheet -- is offset by expert lighting and sound design that add depth to the cold, sterile hospital room setting. And what a setting it proves to be, thanks to Rosario Provenza's stunning scenic design. A wall of white tile repeatedly bursts open in odd places to reveal a bed, a series of doorways, the seat of an amusement park ride. Likewise, Vogel's script -- expertly untangled by skillful direction and interpreted by a gifted cast -- also bursts open to reveal the humor and occasional valor of life in the cold, harsh light of day.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela