The play is called "The Baltimore Waltz"; it has references to Baltimore, slides of Baltimore -- it's even set in Baltimore. But you don't need these home-town touches to feel a deep connection to this rare and magnificent work.
A celebration of life at the same time it is a heart-rending evocation of loss, "The Baltimore Waltz" -- which opened last night as part of Center Stage's re:Discovery series -- is the most moving play the theater has produced this season, and arguably for several seasons.
Written by Maryland-bred playwright Paula Vogel and based on her experiences caring for her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988, the play offers a brilliantly imaginative look at this deadly disease. There is no question audiences will view it differently by the end of this 90-minute production.
Vogel accomplishes this by using fantasy to bring out the familiar. She sets up a make-believe world of childlike innocence, comic cliches and absurdity. AIDS, for instance, is transformed into something called Acquired Toilet Disease, an affliction affecting unmarried elementary school teachers.
The plot ostensibly concerns a European trip taken by Carl and his sister, who is called Anna in the play. Strains of the Marseillaise mark their arrival in Paris, and the chief tourist attraction in the Netherlands is a grown-up version of the Little Dutch Boy who stuck his finger in the dike. This is Europe with a Hollywood flavor -- and, as Donald Eastman's set reminds us, a disturbing resemblance to a hospital room.
As the action progresses, it becomes clear that the play's overriding -- and saddest -- fantasy is a fantasy of denial. Gradually, the truth about the disease, the European tour and even the identity of the patient begins to impinge on the wacky, offbeat tone. But this, too, strikes a familiar chord -- as familiar as Freud's analysis of dreams, or psychotherapist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of dying or the grief suffered by anyone who has lost a loved one.
Director Michael Greif manipulates the play's delicate tone shifts so deftly, you may be startled at how quickly laughter gives way to tears. Much of the humor stems from Robert Dorfman's performance in a dozen different roles including a Johns Hopkins doctor, Harry Lime from the movie "The Third Man" and the aforementioned Little Dutch Boy. The tears derive largely from the palpable sibling affection conveyed by Kristine Nielsen and Jonathan Fried, the actor Vogel has said she envisioned when she wrote the role of Carl.
A stuffed bunny pops up repeatedly in "The Baltimore Waltz," though its exact meaning is left deliberately ambiguous. On the most obvious level, it is Carl's favorite childhood toy, but at various times it also appears to represent everything from his sexuality to contraband. There is nothing ambiguous about the impact of this play, however.
Opening the same day that former tennis star Arthur Ashe announced he has AIDS, "The Baltimore Waltz" is perhaps the most glowing and creative theatrical effort yet to demystify this dreadful disease. This landmark play recently completed a successful run off-Broadway and just opened in Houston.
Center Stage is to be applauded for not only bringing it home, but for producing it with the compassion, humor, insight and dignity it deserves.
"The Baltimore Waltz" continues at Center Stage in repertory through April 26. Call (410) 332-0033.