One Man's Malady

J. Andrew McGrath excels as a sick, delirious traveler in the one-man, intimate 'The Fever'

We're sitting in a small, well-lit room, maybe a dozen of us. Facing us, in a chair of his own, is a good-looking man, elegant, but dressed simply in fashionable-casual black. The man speaks to us; he's intelligent, cultured, privileged, happy. He finds joy in going to the ballet with friends, unwrapping a decorative birthday gift, reading naked on his bed. Because he takes pleasure in his comfortable little life without seeming to criticize or take advantage of others, we like him.

But the man is ill. He talks about vomiting into a toilet in some Third World hotel. He talks about the execution of a political prisoner, as if he'd witnessed it himself. He talks about acquaintances who have been tortured and murdered. But he also talks about eating fine fish at a fancy dinner party, chatting with an attractive woman about films and love, even though he doesn't especially care for her dress.

He veers from one subject to another; at the time, the transition makes sense, but a moment later, you can't remember how he got from the subject of ice cream to an anecdote about a woman who joined the guerrillas in the hills. He is sick. He is feverish. Something in him needs to be purged.

He is the sole character in Wallace Shawn's The Fever, which won the 1991 Obie Award for best play, and is currently being presented in Tucson by The Rogue Theatre. Shawn initially performed the work in the living rooms of friends; this has inspired the Rogue people to present it in three small venues around town. The Fever doesn't belong in a big theater; even though it ultimately slams into big issues, it is a personal, intimate work, best shared with just a few friends at a time.

Cynthia Meier directs actor J. Andrew McGrath in a production stripped down to its absolute essentials. The Fever has been presented elsewhere with elaborate sound and light cues, even dancers. That's a mistake, I think; Meier wisely focuses our concentration on McGrath, because all the color and distraction we need exist in the feverish mind of his character.

Once we learn the cause of the unnamed character's fever and delirium, conservatives among us and not a few liberals may roll their eyes. For this man is suffering from an epiphany he's had after reading Marx and traveling in revolutionary countries. He sees a woman begging on the street, a "beautiful" beggar, and says to himself, "There's money in your purse--you'll give her some of it. And a voice says--'Why not all of it? Why not give her all that you have?' Be careful, that's a question that could poison your life. Your love of beauty could actually kill you. If you hear that question, it means you're sick. You're mentally sick."

This man, this traveler, suffering from a fever, some contagion from a revolutionary country where they don't speak his language, in his sickness develops a simplistic Marxist understanding of his place in history. His people, the upper class, gathered their riches solely by stealing from, exploiting and killing the poor.

Well, if anybody ever really believed this, no wonder Marxism is dead except in university English departments. It doesn't account for the rise of the middle class: people who secured their place in society through honest interaction with rich and poor alike--initially craftsmen and merchants, and now information and technology workers.

So for 15 years, The Fever has been criticized as a foolish exercise in liberal guilt. But it's a mistake to equate the character's realizations with the playwright's beliefs. The real Wally Shawn is probably the gnome in My Dinner With André, who lets André Gregory hold forth with his New Age theories of being and justice until finally interrupting with a defense of electric blankets. Shawn is no revolutionary; he's a playwright.

Indeed, he's not putting forth a coherent philosophy at all. The traveler himself is obviously politically naive (soldiers initially look to him like kind shepherds in pajamas), and in his fever, his beliefs and attention wander; he makes as strong a case for class oppression as he does for socialism. After two days of obsession with the fetishism of commodities, he forgets all about it. But he does wonder why he's no longer moved by the central character in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, a privileged, nostalgic sentimentalist figure much like himself.

This is turning out to be the season of superb one-person performances: Susan Claassen in A Conversation With Edith Head at Invisible Theatre, Roberto Guajardo in Underneath the Lintel at Beowulf Alley and now McGrath in The Fever. He's a firmer, far less nebbishy actor than Shawn, which brings greater initial strength to this increasingly debilitated character. And what a beautiful, warm, fluid voice--just listening to him describe the sounds of a present being opened is itself like receiving an elegant, precious gift. Within a single sentence, McGrath can modulate from gentleness to commanding indignance without resorting to any self-conscious, actorly technique.

This is standard operating procedure for McGrath, judging from his past performances as a would-be president-killer in Assassins, a self-centered lover in The Seagull, a deranged and sad homeless man in Anger Box. He can make even the most damaged character seem human and perhaps too familiar for comfort. He and perceptive director Meier take Shawn's fierce play and prove that, despite all its narrative byways, it is a work of great emotional directness.

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