The way we experience our emotional lives in times of extremity is doggedly difficult to portray—in other words, when shit gets crazy, things make even less sense than usual. Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in the early 1990s, at a time when her brother (and many others) succumbed to AIDS, and it still reflects a good deal of raw emotion and despair. Now the question is what the play has to tell us roughly two decades later, in a moment no less turbulent but with different issues occupying our collective angst.
In the early going we meet Anna (Meg DiSciorio), an elementary school teacher full of anxieties over the prospect of traveling abroad. Her brother Carl (James Lekvin) has few such shrinking-violet tendencies: He's a multilingual San Francisco librarian and expansive spirit who loses his job after spending a children's activity period teaching the tykes how to cut pink triangles out of construction paper.
The way in which this information is transmitted is scarcely conventional. DiSciorio addresses the audience, establishing a sweet, tremulous character. Lekvin also addresses us; we are children to be led in a sing-along, until he spots his boss, whom he flips off. The remainder of the evening is a sort of cinema of the imagination, with the duo abetted by Damon Runnals in a variety of male roles (he also directs).
The Baltimore Waltz
Swandive Theatre at Cedar Riverside People's Center Theater
through June 12
Ursula Bowden's set, a backdrop of white tile, seems a curious choice until a crucial plot twist: Anna is diagnosed with the fatal and incurable Acquired Toilet Disease, which she contracted by sharing a toilet seat with her students. It's literally potty humor, though delivered with a jagged edge: Anna responds to her condition by jetting to Europe with her brother, where she will fornicate her way across the continent in search of one last gasp of sensuality and perhaps an off-the-wall cure.
It's not difficult to grasp the anxieties the play deals with, rendered with the chaos and perverse internal logic of a detailed and restless dream. Disease, death, sex, and the desire to grab hold of as much life as possible before the Reaper's intervention were very much real in the time Vogel was writing this; it was truly a case of the personal telescoping into the universal, with the lives of many taking on the contours of the fevered (with the humorous mingling with the terrible).
In this production, it's only at about the halfway point when things begin to make emotional sense. DiSciorio's Anna is increasingly torn between her fervid need to bed as many foreign stereotypes as possible before the curtain closes and her increasingly needy and clingy brother Carl, to whose bed she returns each night. It doesn't help Carl's state of mind that he is embroiled in some cloak-and-dagger mystery involving his beloved stuffed rabbit (there's a lot of whimsy here, albeit laced with a growing sense of despair).
A spoiler alert is hardly necessary in mentioning that all of this is a fantasy, an escape from the real Carl's impending death (Anna is actually waiting in a hospital, another place of white tile). By the time Runnals, as a daft Austrian medic who advocates drinking piss as a cure for ATD, chugs a pitcher of the stuff (please tell me it's apple juice) we understand that we're in the territory of allegory and fantasy as an escape from pain.
By the end, DiSciorio and Lekvin have located the heart that still beats in this play: the double-edged power of how deeply we love those closest to us, and how their loss can only be expressed in our inner narrative as a story of incomprehensible chaos. Swandive Theatre, then, finds the germ of sweetness and affection in a story that could be rendered as bleak and hopeless. It finds what endures, and what matters.