Dance around the truth
The Baltimore Waltz
When two people waltz, they’re making an agreement: to remain locked in an embrace and execute a precise series of steps. It’s a physical challenge they take together, and an emotional one as well. They’re silently agreeing to remain completely in tune with the other’s movements as they dance within the box they create. There’s poetry in it when it’s done well, making it an enduring symbol of love and partnership.
In what she calls a “farcical, tragical, theatrical love letter,” The Baltimore Waltz, playwright Paula Vogel thinly veils a true story with some elements of fiction, and uses the waltz to show her deep love and respect for her late brother, Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988 before the two ever got to take the trip to Europe that they’d always planned.
But the waltz also is used to beautifully illustrate the tacit understanding between the two main characters: that they will not acknowledge the dark reality facing them.
The story mirrors Vogel’s own. Carl (played by Bradford Ka’ai’ai), a San Francisco librarian, also happens to be gay, and is fired for his outspoken support of the lifestyle. It’s the 1980s, and the nation is reeling from an epidemic of a little-understood, deadly disease: Acquired Toilet Disease, or ATD, which spawned a public health campaign, “Do squat, don’t sit,” an obvious satire of the era.
Carl rushes to the support of his sister, Anna (played by Mary Bennett), a mild-mannered first-grade teacher who has contracted ATD from sharing a toilet with her students. The two go on a flight of fancy, finally seizing the opportunity to take that long-planned European journey before Anna dies. While there, they will meet with a doctor renowned for his strange experimental treatments for ATD as a last-ditch effort to save Anna’s life.
But once in Europe, the exultant silliness quickly turns to fear as Anna’s mortality comes crashing down upon her, forcing her through the stages of grief. Anna sets out to have sex with every man she meets, in order to both sow oats long protected while playing it safe and to distract her from her reality.
Meanwhile, Carl, who carries his childhood stuffed bunny around with him, watches what his sister is doing with disdain and feels her pulling away from him, leaving him alone.
But in this clever two-step, neither discusses the obvious: what Anna is really distracting herself from, why a bed features prominently in every scene, why they are both wearing pajamas and why every other character in the play bears a striking resemblance to Anna’s doctor (this is the “Third Man,” played by Bryce Alexander Keil).
Director Sandra Brunell-Neace does a fine job with this tremendously challenging play. It not only uses just three cast members (one of whom plays about a dozen roles), but also bursts with symbolism and dual meanings that constantly threaten to get lost or disregarded, or to become ham-handed or preachy (and yet don’t). The playwright’s frequent references to the film noir classic The Third Man are handled well here through costuming and props. (A word of caution: Unless you’ve seen the film, the many references to it may be lost on you and cause you to scratch your head over several scenes.)
The staging is somewhat awkward, though, and the minimal set (the ever-present bed) is hard to work around. About half the audience must be placed around the sides of the stage, forcing subtle exchanges downstage to be obscured or characters to be blocked completely.
All three actors are hugely talented, and both Ka’ai’ai and Bennett are convincing and heartbreaking in their roles. You can be sure that, at the end, when they are at last no longer dancing around the truth, Anna and Carl’s final waltz will bring a lump to your throat.