From the Winter 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
It’s 1976, and healthcare costs are rising while medical advances develop at a seemingly exponential pace. A kid with hemophilia, for example, might have a promising future because of incredible progress in medicine. In reality, things are daunting as well. After all, advances don’t happen if people don’t make them happen. But when people are involved, personalities can make things complicated. That doesn’t help a kid with Hemophilia (a blood disorder that impairs clotting equates even a minor cut to a life-threatening emergency). In 1976, all these things were about to make survival quite different for hemophiliacs.
The year 1976 is the starting point for Karen Hartman’s new play, Roz and Ray, currently receiving its Midwest premiere at Victory Gardens Theatre. In ‘76, no one knew about AIDS. The idea that the blood supply so critical to maintaining the lives of hemophiliacs might become threatened with an incurable virus was on no one’s mind. Not that contagions didn’t exist—hepatitis C is just one example—but nothing on the scale of the AIDS epidemic.
The timeframe for Roz and Ray includes those early days of the epidemic, as well as a single day in 1991 after the worst thing imaginable has happened to one of Ray’s sons. Hartman takes us through several concise, fast-paced scenes to unveil two people trying to make the best choices possible in a confusing medical landscape. One of the things Hartman does best in Roz and Ray is distill a very complicated and painful period of medical history into a very tightly written work.
The burden of the script’s dramatic narrative is carried by the two title characters (played by turns with delicacy and vigor by Mary Beth Fisher and James Vincent Meredith), Dr. Roz Kagan and Ray Leon . Others are referenced—especially Ray’s twin sons, Mikey and Ray Ray—but none ever appears onstage. When the play starts, in 1976, a new treatment for Hemophiliacs called Factor 8 is being introduced to the twin boys by Dr. Kagan. Kagan believes this new approach will help the boys live a normal life. Ray trusts her and his trust seems validated—enough so that Roz eventually becomes a kind of mother-figure to the boys. And a wife-figure to Ray, who must raise the boys himself after their mom (haunted by childhood memories of the world’s negative reactions to her brother’s hemophilia) abandons the family.
With the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s, the lives of the twins becomes compromised in a way no one could have guessed in 1976. Add to this the growing question of ethics in the early days of the AIDS crisis and you have a nice cauldron of conflict when Ray decides that Dr. Kagan should have known what she was doing when administering the potentially infected Factor 8 to his sons.
One of the most striking things about Hartman’s script is the incredible detail of a doctor’s life and the world of the early AIDS epidemic. This is not a coincidence. As Hartman explains, “My father was a pediatric hematologist in San Diego in the 1970s and 1980s. His career was a model for Roz’s career and medical dilemma.”
Was the play then inspired by actual events? Yes and no. “My father died in 2002. He didn’t talk about it much when he was alive, and I couldn’t go back and ask him questions, so I had to research it like any other topic but emotionally it’s like I was an insider.” The emotional impact for doctor as well as patient struck Hartman. “There was material at the time that I had access to because the story had unfolded so close to home. Losing patients to the AIDS epidemic, that is exactly what happened to my father.”
Despite limiting the narrative to only two characters, the events in Hartman’s script unfold with remarkable fluidity. Both Roz and Ray talk to unseen characters, plus much information is garnered through phone calls. These devices work; the energy of a busy hospital is conveyed as well as a sense of the immense impact the unseen characters have on the story. Not actually manifesting the physical characters of Mikey and Ray Ray on stage would seem to create a hurdle in appreciating their plight. But Hartman cleverly keeps the focus on her intended targets: Roz and Ray. The choices they make carry the consequences for not only the twin boys, but these choices become symbolic for those made by many in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Still, there’s a risk of too much burden placed on two actors. “When I set out to write it, it wasn’t necessarily going to be a two-character play. There are a lot of offstage characters that are very important to the play. I considered bringing all of them into the play. But I wanted this to be equally the story of Roz and Ray. I wanted to keep the balance: Who’s story is this? Who’s point of view do I listen to?”
It works. But of course, the script has had the benefit of a solid development process. Hartman, originally from New York but now based in Seattle, has worked her play through two other theaters before Victory Gardens. She explains, “It was really one of those, ‘it takes a village’ stories. I was invited to the Women Playwright’s Festival at Hedgebrook, a retreat centered on an island near Seattle. They invite theater professionals from all over the country. The new plays director from the Alley Theatre in Houston came to that festival. She offered Roz and Ray a workshop production at The Alley. I asked Chay Yew, the artistic director of Victory Gardens, to direct that production. I guess it went well on both sides—it went well enough on my end that I wanted him to direct the production in Seattle. And I guess he liked the play well enough that he decided to produce it at Victory Gardens.”
Chicago audiences get to see the culmination of this maturation process. The script doesn’t attempt to take sides and doesn’t pretend that the answers are at all easy. And the timing couldn’t be better. With healthcare costs rising year after year and the bloating greed of pharmaceutical companies, the issues raised in Roz and Ray seem even more critical today. Hartman’s insights are just as applicable in 2016 as they are for 1976.
Roz and Ray run at Victory Gardens Theatre through December 11.
Mary Beth Fisher and James Vincent Meredith star in Roz and Ray on stage at Victory Gardens Theatre through December 11 (photo by Liz Lauren).
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts