Thursday, October 20, 2016

An AIDS play with a fascinating twist ("Roz and Ray" at Seattle Rep)

Ellen McLaughlin and Teagle F. Bougere in Roz and Ray (Alan Alabastro)
Roz and Ray
Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through November 13,2016

Karen Hartman is a local playwright also gaining national recognition. Her newest play, Roz and Ray, is getting a co-world premiere production between the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. The artistic director of Victory Gardens, Chay Yew, supplely directs this production and two veteran actors with national theater credits take on the roles in this roiling, emotional two-hander.

The unassuming title gives nothing away about what kind of relationship Roz and Ray have. It is definitely unique, in that Roz is a hematologist and Ray is a parent of twin hemophiliacs who need constant medical attention and blood products to stay alive. The play jumps back and forward in time from the late 1970s to 1991. This is key to the subject at hand.

We’re talking about AIDS. It’s a potent topic, not significantly explored in plays, though not unknown for including Gay life and AIDS’ affect on that culture, as many or most SGN readers can attest to. But most of us don’t know and can stand some education about how AIDS affected people who needed blood product to live normal lives.

We’re introduced to the doctor and patients when the twins we never actually see are seven years old and are being taught how to self-inject Factor H. We learn that this is a new (in the late ‘70s) kind of blood product that revolutionizes how hemophiliacs can manage care, including allowing them to inject at home, safely – they thought – and avoiding hospital care and improving clotting to enjoy a very much more normal life.

But immediately after that, we jump to 1991 with Ray shouting to the heavens that Roz killed his son! It’s a huge – and theatrically gripping – moment. It immediately intrigues and takes the play out of any normal relationship.

There is a great deal of fascinating dialogue and just enough medical information to allow us to understand how AIDS reached into this population’s medical care and destroyed faith in the blood donation national treatment process. Hartman smartly doesn’t overwhelm here.

The two actors, Ellen McLaughlin and Teagle F. Bougere, are nationally known stars who have both been on the Rep stage from time to time, to our delight. They are of the caliber of actor who could read the phone book and keep an audience interested.

Bougere has the more engaging character, here, with more emotional levels and more humor. McLaughlin’s character has much less humor and more personality confusion, in terms of how to interact with a man she comes to care for while keeping professional boundaries. They have an awkward chemistry, which makes sense in context.

In this iteration of the script, there is an unfortunate subplot. Plays often go through a lot of collaborative feedback and suggestions from other playwrights, directors, and theater friends, and sometimes things might creep into a play that derail it from its full potential. It is impossible, without a conversation with Hartman, to determine how or why a romance got inserted into this play. Maybe it was Hartman’s idea from the start.

However, the topic and the relationship of desperate need between a doctor and a parent of medically fragile children is fraught enough to be fascinating fodder for the play. The interdependence might indeed cause them to be tricked into the idea that they might be romantically interested and psychology has much to say on that topic. But at present, the romance derails the whole play into more of a soap opera and a jilted lover-type scenario than a real medical tragedy.

In fact, there might be an easy fix, since the script is so very solid in every other way. Take out the actual romance (even if one leaves in the moment when they make a mistaken physical connection) and remove the uninspired mawkish ending and you have a play that will demand being produced everywhere in the English-speaking world. It’s potential is that good.

To see this fascinating play, go to www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222.