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Ode to Innocence

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Patient A

Far West Productions

at Angel Island

A year ago, when the Elmore Pond Players presented the (apparently unauthorized) Chicago premiere of Lee Blessing's 1993 Patient A, I hated it: the play, not the production. Despite swiftly paced direction and intelligent acting, this piece seemed little more than a sanctimonious, self-important depiction of Kimberly Bergalis's life, a life that had already been bled dry by every newspaper, television tabloid journal, and glossy magazine in the country. Bergalis, of course, was America's favorite "innocent victim" of AIDS, infected with HIV by her dentist during oral surgery in 1991 (she even said in her congressional testimony, "I have done nothing wrong and yet I am being made to suffer"). Blessing's beatification of Bergalis in a play that also criticizes the media's hyperbolic adoration of her seemed the height of hypocrisy. And the endless strains of Andrew Marvell's ode to murdered innocence, "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn"--which Blessing's alter-ego character Lee recites throughout the evening--made my toenails curl.

Then last month Far West's postcard for the "Chicago premiere" of Patient A arrived in the mail, emblazoned across the top with three words: "Innocence. Ignorance. AIDS." After enduring the media's misconceived eulogies for Oklahoma City's "slaughtered innocents" (who were neither innocent nor guilty but simply unlucky), after seeing half a dozen HIV bills emerge from Springfield during the last legislative session offering a pound of punishment but not an ounce of prevention, and after years of witnessing our culture's facile division of people with AIDS into "innocent" and "guilty" camps, my toenails faced irreparable deformation. The last thing I needed, I thought, was to sit through Patient A again, listening to Blessing oh-so-earnestly confess how difficult it is for him to really feel for a dying multitude: namely my friends and colleagues.

But Far West's simple, richly textured production unearths some of the hidden treasures Elmore Pond and I overlooked last spring. The sanctimony and self-importance are still there, and in spades--Bergalis is all courage, devotion, and serenity, and Lee (identified as "the playwright") is the only character who seems to comprehend even the most obvious poetic metaphors (the New York Times aptly called Patient A "a playwright's conversations with himself"). Far West director Greg Kolack's occasional forays into tear-choking sentimentality cater to the play's worst side. But Kolack also broadens the intellectual scope of the play, giving the thorny social and political issues surrounding the Bergalis case as much attention as the tragic--if maudlin--story of a young media darling with AIDS.

Kolack essentially seizes every opportunity Blessing gives him to temporarily deflect the play's main current. Blessing actually begins his play trying to maintain a balance between the personal and the political. Bergalis only wants to tell her story, Lee longs to find "a resonance," and Matthew--a half-formed character who is supposed to represent thousands of gay men who've died of AIDS--wants to examine how homophobia in the media, government, and medical community has fanned the flame of the plague. These jumbled, warring impulses--to speak a personal truth, to transform the truth through metaphor, and to give voice to the larger political reality of AIDS--mean that the first half of Patient A has an impressive intellectual complexity, passionately articulated by Kolack's three-person ensemble.

These conflicting impulses also give the first half an edgy unpredictability and humanize the characters, especially as they repeatedly adopt contradictory tactics. Lee, for example, proclaims at the beginning that he's "neutral," aiming to present all sides of an issue "responsibly." Yet when a troubling public-health policy question arises--if only six people in the country are known to have been infected with HIV by the same dentist, are calls for mandatory HIV testing of health-care providers justifiable?--Lee pulls an emotional trump, telling a very personal, biased story about his brother, killed in a car accident because seat belt regulations hadn't yet been enacted even though the technology for safer seat belts was available.

At first these conflicting impulses are intertwined, but as the play progresses they begin to separate, and each character forges ahead on his or her own track, never confronting the others: the result is dramatic stagnation. Most disappointing, the impulse that dominates is that of personal confession. No matter how compelling Lee's or Matthew's political, cultural, or philosophical insights--about media double standards, the "elegant and effective prison" of the human body, the horrible consequences of telling the truth--Blessing pulls these characters aside to give Bergalis center stage. There she talks of almost nothing but her personal life, as though no one else's matters. Perhaps Blessing imagines that her story is what his audience wants to hear--certainly it sold millions of magazines in its time. Perhaps he found his "resonance" in the facts of her life. It seems more likely that he had to please his patrons: Patient A was commissioned by the Bergalis family. In any event, by the second half of the play Bergalis's unbelievably pious struggle with AIDS eclipses the larger and more intriguing issues--the very issues that Kolack has worked so hard to keep in the forefront.

Despite deeply committed, moving performances by Bethanny Alexander, Gene Cordon, and Brad Meyerhoff, Kolack is fighting a losing battle, trying to elevate the play above sanctimony and self-importance. Ultimately Blessing cops out, giving one woman who was overexposed in her lifetime the posthumous chance to steal the spotlight once again from those with broader, more informed perspectives.

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