Let others construct their memorials to loved ones with stone, images, or poetry - Paula Vogel will do it with theatre. Her tribute to her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988, is the 1992 play The Baltimore Waltz, which is being revived by the Signature Theatre Company as part of their season dedicated to Vogel's works. How many playwrights other than Vogel would dare to honor a life - and chronicle a death - in a way far more farcical than elegiac?
For Vogel, who specializes in unearthing and bringing to life such contradictory ideas, this was probably the most obvious choice for a work that, in its final form, strives for everything but obviousness. Vogel so blurs the lines between the real and imaginary that only empathy - in the form of one healthy sibling desperately trying to help another terminally ill one hang onto life for as long as possible - remains a tangible guidepost. Sometimes love is enough.
But not always; we know from the play's opening minutes that things will not end happily for both Anna (Kristen Johnston) and her brother Carl (David Marshall Grant). Anna ostensibly suffers from a rare, mysterious disease, and is determined to live each day as if it's her last. Though her stated malady is one affecting only single school teachers, there's never a doubt as to what affliction is the play's true subject; a standard, weepy tearjerker, however, is not Vogel's goal. She weaves together scenes set in a Baltimore hospital (the appropriately sterile set is by Neil Patel) and a trip to Europe in search of a cure with detailed allusions to the classic film thriller The Third Man, to suggest a magical, whimsical - and final - journey for the two.
Unfortunately, though this production is tightly staged by Mark Brokaw, little magic or whimsy comes through. Brokaw successfully orchestrates a visual and aural feast, sending curtains crashing across the stage, nicely marshalling Mark McCullough's lights and David Van Tieghem's music, and handling rapid transitions and multiple split-stage effects with ease. But he doesn't prevent the production's overarching aura from turning grim, which is necessary to make this rapid-paced and potentially bewildering show play well.
This gloom so informs the action that the play's comedy and poignancy often dissolve as soon as they set in; this is never as moving or as hilarious an evening as it should be. Johnston suffers most, her comedy skills honed from years on Third Rock from the Sun failing her in what should be a walk in the comedic park. Lacking a palette of richly varied theatrical colors to utilize to emphasize Anna's inherent pathos, Johnston renders Anna as very much a cipher, and she often seems lost when the play's mounting bizarre complexities most require a solid central force.
Grant and Jeremy Webb - who plays a variety of entertaining ancillary characters including doctors, a train conductor, and an amorous French waiter - fare better. But their performances too are cool, lacking definition - Grant scores in an early scene depicting his last day working at a library (he encourages his young charges to cut triangles from pink construction paper), but makes much less of an impression as the concerned brother willing to go to absurd lengths to rescue his sister. Webb smoothly negotiates his often instantaneous changes of personality and clothing (the costumes are by Michael Krass), but registers as being outside the action rather than part of it.
In a way, that's understandable - Vogel has established few entryways into her world. The play itself is essentially a collection of whirling witticisms and swirling concepts that only occasionally coalesce into genuine emotion and require the most fortuitous of circumstances to become an effective play. That makes this work a much trickier prospect than some of her later efforts, such as The Long Christmas Ride Home or the Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive (both of which Brokaw directed), which utilize their complex structural and dramatic concepts in clearer, more easily assimilable ways.
But Vogel's intentions are unimpeachable, and the imperfect, unfinished nature of the play is a significant part of its charm: It's a work forever in progress, as grieving itself is a process that never truly ends. For Vogel, or for anyone who's lost someone close, the journey to understanding - like Anna and Carl's journey in the play - is more important than the destination. In that way at least, The Baltimore Waltz is a trip worth taking.
Signature Theatre Company