A Sister’s Lament

Paula Vogel’s 1992 AIDS play explores the uneasy coexistence of grief, joy and comedy

Signature Theatre Company’s current play, “The Baltimore Waltz,” is an AIDS story, and a whole lot more.

Twelve years having passed since its first production, the play seems a bit dated now. That’s all the more reason to see it. It shows us how far we’ve come since the days when AIDS was an inevitable, and more or less immediate, death sentence. It also shows us that grief is timeless—and in the hands of playwright Paula Vogel, is as varied and fascinating as light upon water.

On the face of it, the story is about how Anna, a young schoolteacher, reacts to the death of her beloved brother, Carl. Tellingly, it’s about the way Vogel grieved, and is still grieving her own brother, who died of AIDS in 1988. Most of all, it’s about the way humans grieve in general: not head-on, not continuously, not logically—often, with joy popping up unexpectedly in the midst of it, or comedy, or gratitude, or celebration.

“The Baltimore Waltz,” a mostly vivacious and often ribald piece of theater, is about how people lose the people they can’t bear to lose.

Staged on a simple, brightly lit set, the play opens with Anna—straight, single and a native of Baltimore—pronouncing herself willing to go abroad, except that “the language terrifies me.” Never mind—her adored older brother Carl, head librarian of literature and languages at the San Francisco Public Library, will take her.

It will be the last trip Anna and Carl take together. Minutes into the play, Anna learns she has ATD, Acquired Toilet Disease, a communicative fatal condition she contracted in a school bathroom.

“Five-year-olds can be deadly,” intones her doctor.

Her furious response, “Cut down in the prime of youth by a toilet seat!” provokes uproarious laughter in the audience, even as the connection clicks: this is how an ordinary person confronts the horrifying result of an innocent action. AIDS too once seemed as impossible, as absurd, as ATD, Vogel’s invented malady.

What follows is a whirlwind European tour in which Anna frantically samples, or gorges on, every indulgence she never tried, or never got enough of, while Carl maneuvers in secret to locate outlandish treatments, expensive black market drugs, and medical practitioners willing to experiment on desperate subjects. If this sounds grim, it isn’t. The fact that Carl carries his stuffed rabbit with him to the capitals of Europe, the spectacle of Anna’s sexual and culinary excesses, and the colorful characters they meet along the way more than satisfy the audience’s appetite for entertainment.

Although the adventure itself, which spoofs every American cliché about European travel, is funny and at times even hilarious, there is an almost unbearable tension throughout as the audience wonders if, somehow, Carl will save her; and why not just Anna but also Carl is wearing pajamas, like a patient; and whether the two will finish their tour before her (his) time is up.

Of course the play’s ultimate irony is that it’s Carl, not Anna, who is sick. But so brisk is the plot’s progress, so lively and full of jokes, so fanciful and dream-like, that it’s possible to forget what’s under the surface for long moments at a time. And this, too, is consistent with grief. As Anna says, “In the morning, when I open my eyes, I feel absolutely well—without a body. And then the thought comes crashing in my mind. This is the last spring I may see. This is the last summer.”

And then, in the next breath, the comedy: “How could this happen to me! I did my lesson plans faithfully for the last 10 years!… [I] kept up on new audio-visual aids—I read Summerhill!”

The fact that Vogel is able to blend humor—even slapstick at times—so deftly with pathos, with suspense, with anger—is a testimony to her skill as a playwright. When “The Baltimore Waltz” was first produced, and won an Obie, in 1992, most theatrical treatments of AIDS were straightforward expressions of shock, horror or political outrage. Vogel, who went on to win a Pulitzer in 1998 for “How I Learned to Drive,” showed her mettle as a playwright with her complex handling of “The Baltimore Waltz”—a story that is, underneath it all, the lament of a loving sister. Anna casts herself in the role of the dying sibling because she can’t bear that he will die and leave her.

A passage narrated by a character called The Third Man—an allusion to a film thriller of the same name—is surely pure autobiography: “The first separation—your first sense of loss. You were five, your brother was seven. Your parents would not let you sleep in the same bed anymore… But every now and then—when the dark scared you—you would rise and go to him. And he would let you nustle under his arm, under the covers, where you would fall to sleep, breathing in the scent of your own breath and his seven-year-old body.”

Such snatches of memory occur intermittently throughout the action, and then the caper resumes. But finally, of course, Anna arrives at the last quack doctor, is given a preposterous course of treatment and discovers that, as she was told before the journey began, there is no cure, and death will come on schedule.

The ending of “The Baltimore Waltz” is as chilling as it is precisely because the romp leading up to it has been so sunny. Vogel, director Mark Brokaw, and the versatile three-member cast—which includes David Marshall Grant, Jeremy Webb and Kristen Johnsten, best-known from television’s “Third Rock from the Sun”—have not pulled any punches: the audience knew all along that someone, if not Anna, then Carl, was dying. Why then is it such a shock when it comes? Why does it feel, in fact, like the real thing?

Probably because it is—for Vogel, and definitely for many members of the audience.

In the playwright’s note preceding the published version of “The Baltimore Waltz,” Vogel includes the actual text of a note her brother—whose name was Carl—wrote to her before his death.

“Dear, Paula. I thought I would jot down some of my thoughts about the (shall we say) production values of my ceremony. Oh God—I can hear you groaning—everybody wants to direct. Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.”

The note goes on to specify, in heartbreaking and hilarious detail, exactly the kind of memorial service Carl envisioned, from the music to the readings to “the piece of me I leave behind”—“Open casket, full drag” was one option; “Open casket, bum up. (You’ll know where to place the calla lilies, won’t you?)” was another.

This letter, as much as the play his sister wrote in his memory years later, is as vivid a description of grief as anything produced in this generation of AIDS.

Said Vogel in an interview with POZ magazine in 1998, “I don’t actually think this is a play about AIDS. It’s about the love between brothers and sisters. People who are grieving when they come to see the play tell me that it’s a way to get in touch with their joy. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

Signature Theatre Company is honoring lesbian playwright Paula Vogel with her own season this year. Starting with “The Oldest Profession” this fall and ending with “Hot ‘N Throbbing,” opening in March, the Paula Vogel series will not only showcase three Vogel works, it will also offer a student playwriting series and several one-day intensive workshops—called “playwriting boot camps”—hosted by the playwright.

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