Would that we had the luxury of calling The Baltimore Waltz a period piece. But the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV/AIDS in 2010 were dwarfed by the 22.9 million sub-Saharan Africans with the virus. Given that more than two million people are infected and more than a million die each year from the disease, HIV/AIDS remains a pressing matter.
But, when placed against other AIDS-related plays from the same era, playwright Paula Vogel's strategy in this 1990 script now seems too demure. (The rest of this review contains spoilers.) Instead of focusing on gay brother Carl (Jesse Gephart), most of Waltz concerns his sister, Anna (Mary Forester), whose mysterious, fictive malady, ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease) sparks a heterosexually indiscriminate European holiday with Carl as tour guide in a takeoff of the Carol Reed film The Third Man.
Yes, Vogel's premise is right: If straight white schoolteachers had been the predominant victims, the government's response under Ronald Reagan would have been markedly different. But by now, the script's repeated emphasis on exclusively heterosexual abandon on stage now almost seems a bait-and-switch, which masks (or actually, eclipses) what would otherwise be depictions of homosexual desire.
Under Chip Rodgers' direction, strong work characterizes all three principal roles. Gephart particularly gives Carl dignity in a moving final monologue, while Forester gives her hapless Anna the requisite zing. Kit FitzSimons ably inhabits serious and comic characters here before a brilliant, show-stealing take on a German quack that's apparently related to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
The final scenes, which reverse the switcheroo, have a commendable gravitas. But at this distance, the jokes that precede them seem to obscure rather than illuminate the facts.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Carolina fictions."