Visual AIDS

Patient A is a small, infrequently produced play about the life and death of Kimberly Bergalis. Bergalis died in 1991 from complications of AIDS, which she presumably contracted from her dentist. Her case became national news and Bergalis a media figure and penultimate "innocent victim." In this solemn one-act--presented by Whenever Productions, a new troupe that leases space at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre--she tells her own story in monologues aimed at the audience and an ensemble of two other players.

Playwright Lee Blessing draws Bergalis as neither saint nor martyr, which is surprising considering that her parents commissioned him to write the play. He is an onstage character, writing the play while it takes place--and dodging complaints and criticism from his characters, none of whom care much for his playwriting skills. But in all fairness, he's managed to present a biography that spares us statistics and sentimentality. Blessing eschews disease-of-the-week dramatics and focuses on the ironies of a death that "means something." The only real disappointment is in the hackneyed "You can let go" speech presented as the young woman lay dying. Does every AIDS drama have to include this bit of dialogue? Does anyone die on stage or film these days without first hearing those words?

The complex material is helped along by some even-handed directing. Co-directors Linda DeArmond and Michael Grady present an expert minimalist staging that spotlights their actors and downplays the occasionally self-conscious material. As Bergalis, Cindy Wynn turns in a persuasive, unadorned performance. She neither demands our sympathy nor denies her status, in some circles, as a villain. Wynn convinced me that maybe Bergalis wasn't the whiny conservative figurehead I remember from her print interviews.

Producer James Hummert is impressive as the playwright, who both narrates and comments on the action. Radford Mallon provides choral support in a handful of uninteresting early scenes. He fares better as Matthew, a sort of gay everyman who denounces the preferential treatment Bergalis receives as an "innocent victim." His enraged sermon about the inequities of life is riveting and sincere. I heard a pin drop.

Audiences for this sort of issue-oriented, black-box theatre tend to be pretty cynical, but the Sunday-night crowd for this show stayed to cheer. A panel discussion follows each performance, and I overheard a woman behind me ask her companion if he wanted to stay and listen in. "That's all right," he told her. "The play gave me enough to think about."

Patient A continues through Wednesday, November 27, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

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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