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It’s not every day that a critic gets to describe a literally breathtaking theatrical moment, so indulge me briefly. The breath in question is that of audiences at Lee Blessing’s shattering AIDS drama Patient A, and the scene that does the taking is an argument between its two primary characters—a dispute so explosive that even its garrulous, poetry-quoting, onstage author is temporarily silenced.
On one side stands Kimberly Bergalis (Lee Mikeska Gardner), the young Florida woman who gained international notoriety when Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control confirmed her claim that she had probably contracted AIDS from her dentist. On the other is Matthew (Michael Rodgers), an HIV-positive gay man outraged at having been enlisted as “choral support” in a drama that, by its very existence, offends him. From the evening’s outset, Matthew has continually broken character to chide the play’s author (played by a script-in-hand Jon Tindle) for catering to a general public that cares only about AIDS’ white, heterosexual, “poster-child victims.” Now he turns on Kimberly Bergalis, railing not so much at her as at the injustice she represents: While hundreds of thousands of gay men die as mere AIDS statistics, her altogether exceptional, one-in-a-billion case is being used to create social policy that could hamper the medical community’s ability to fight the disease.
By the end of his tirade, Matthew is red-faced and Bergalis ashen. He turns away and, for long seconds, the auditorium quiets to a pin-droppable hush. Finally, the playwright’s stand-in, who has a line to say, breaks the silence by exhaling quietly—a sound so slight that under normal circumstances it wouldn’t carry three feet—and the audience, realizing that it, too, has stopped breathing, does the same.
That such a moment exists—in an evening that takes as its subject matter the most relentlessly overscrutinized of all AIDS cases and that makes a fetish of interrupting itself every time a character threatens to make two points in a row—is a tribute to Freedom Stage’s terrific production. But it’s also due in no small part to Blessing’s script, which delineates with remarkable clarity three unorthodox characters and a situation that would give Pirandello pause. Blessing, who was commissioned by the Bergalis family to write a play about Kimberly and who met her in the last months of her life, has fulfilled his assignment by writing about his own creative process. His method is direct: First he places Kimberly onstage opposite Matthew, a foil who is there both to play characters she comes into contact with and to balance her view of AIDS with that of the gay community. Then he inserts himself into the stage action as a playwright named Lee, making acerbic comments (“When I was growing up, it was the diseases that were dying…polio, smallpox”) and almost encouraging both of his characters to attack him for mucking up a story they each claim to see clearly.
Blessing’s work has frequently made better dramatic use of current events than patrons had any right to expect. His nuclear disarmament play (A Walk in the Woods) and his Beirut hostage drama (Two Rooms) were both far more intriguing than the sum of their arguments. Still, he’s never thrown himself into the fray quite as brazenly as he does in Patient A. To some extent, his own questions about the material and his awkward, almost apologetic efforts to shape it dramatically become not just a platform for the story, but the story itself.
Enough so that it’s easy to empathize early on when the title character utters a heartfelt, “I’m a little stumped by this.” Kimberly is objecting to the ambiguities and ironies Lee keeps introducing into a story she regards as straightforward. She doesn’t understand, for instance, what Matthew is doing on the premises (neither does Matthew, actually) and she’s completely flummoxed by the excerpts from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Nymph Complaining of the Death of her Faun,” which the playwright keeps reading from his notebook. Statistics, obscure references to extinct birds, and other literary marginalia also leave her cold. “I’m going to do this my way,” she says finally, and begins her story with talk of her childhood home in Pennsylvania.
Almost immediately, though, the playwright’s ironies creep into her own speeches. A casual mention that she and a 12-year-old friend were “blood sisters” scrapes one’s nerve endings. Ditto a seemingly offhand comment that Bergalis was intrigued by statistics and was studying to be an actuary. At first, when the author has his stage alter ego underline these points himself, or has Matthew chime in as various characters, it feels like overkill. But as the arguments become more intricate, the intrusions grow more welcome, illuminating the reluctance of all three characters to deal with information conflicting with their own worldviews.
That reluctance has been mirrored, interestingly enough, by the show’s production history. Freedom Stage artistic director Jose Carrasquillo writes in his program notes that he’d initially resisted the idea of presenting Patient A because he feared that producing a play based on Bergalis’ life could “harm our credibility as the gay and lesbian theater in town.” Reading the script evidently convinced him that the work was sufficiently complex and evenhanded to merit production. But then he began getting negative feedback from the community. This past weekend, the company was alarmed to hear rumors that the Washington Blade, D.C.’s gay and lesbian newspaper, might not cover its opening.
All of which naturally ups the ante onstage. When Gardner’s Bergalis flushes with frustration at her inability to wrest control of the play from Tindle’s determinedly neutral playwright or when Rodgers’ Matthew steps outside the various characters he’s playing to take potshots at the structure of the evening’s argument, the larger issues that have dogged the play are, in essence, made flesh.
It helps, of course, that the performance level is high. All three actors are splendid—Tindle cool, unflappable, and slightly distant as he struggles to bring artistic closure to a still-raging debate; Gardner ever-feisty but hauntingly diminished as she’s slowly worn down by the disease; and Rodgers sometimes astonished at the authorially induced words coming out of his mouth, other times ferocious in his fury. Carrasquillo’s sharply focused direction makes astute use of a setting designed for another Blessing drama (Lake Street Extension) with which Patient A will play in repertory beginning this weekend. His reading of the play is every bit as thought-provoking as it is wrenching, and it marks another step forward in the remarkable evolution of Freedom Stage. This is the only must-see in town.