AIDS Activist

In 1988 playwright Paula Vogel's brother died of complications due to AIDS. Her Obie-winning The Baltimore Waltz, now running at Actors Theatre of Houston, is a comically allegorical homage to his life and their love. It is also a raging attack on the debilitating politics that surrounded AIDS during the 1980s.

One sad day Anna (Kate Revnell-Smith), an elementary school teacher, discovers she has fallen victim to ATD (acquired toilet disease), a devastating and mysterious new illness attacking unmarried teachers. Her nervous doctor, who can offer no hope, is reduced to mumbling indecipherable medical jargon about ATD. Confused and gloomy, Anna reads a leaflet about "Operation Squat," which riffs on the mountains of brochures calling for "safe sex." ATD, we discover, is 82nd on the nation's list of health priorities.

With no cure in sight, she decides to vacation in Europe, where she will "fuck her brains out," see the world and spend her last days with her beloved brother. In a series of strange, burlesque-filled scenes that capture the desperation that surrounded AIDS in the early days, Vogel sends Anna on a wild ride that includes a night with the Little Dutch Boy and a bar scene with a radical German student activist. Along the way, Anna's brother Carl (Greg Gorden) clutches a white bunny as he sleuths out a secret cure à la The Third Man. Deft in its ability to capture the absurd politics and the desperate sadness that followed in the wake of AIDS, Vogel's early script reveals all the talent that would later flow into her Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive. (See "One Fine Drive," October 15, 1998.)

Sadly, younger audiences may not remember enough of the AIDS epidemic during its first decade to grasp the irony that spits through Vogel's play. But the cast at Actors Theatre, including the hysterical Foster Davis, who plays all the smaller roles, wields a kitschy, caustic tone that punches straight into the guts of all the public and private fears that surrounded AIDS in the '80s.

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Lee Williams