WHEN THE BERGALIS family asked Lee Blessing to write a play about their dying daughter, Kimberly, she was known to most of the country as one of the "innocent victims" of AIDS--a white, heterosexual virgin with no intravenous drug history. We had recently seen her courageous testimony in front of congress as she sat in her deteriorated state, begging for changes in laws affecting HIV-positive healthcare workers.
"I didn't do anything to deserve this," she told them. Kimberly was one of six people in the United States known to have contracted AIDS from a healthcare worker--her dentist. The other five all contracted AIDS from the same dentist.
When Blessing agreed to write the play, some fellow playwrights and many AIDS activists were alarmed. Giving a forum to Kimberly's story would only feed the bigoted viewpoint that distinguished the "innocent victims" of AIDS from the "sinners" paying a fair price for their deviant lifestyles. Others thought putting her story on the stage might prompt a call to action to find a cure for AIDS for all, regardless of the motive behind it.
On James Blair's stark, sterile set design, reminiscent of either heaven or a vacuity depending upon your indoctrination as a child, Blessing tugs us into Bergalis' story with surprising, but gentle, humor using himself as a ploy in Patient A, now playing at Invisible Theatre.
In a clever move, Blessing takes the elements he's struggling with as a playwright, puts them smack in the middle of the play, makes himself a character in his own play, and forces the characters to resolve the issues that trouble him.
He shares the stage with Kimberly and Matthew, an extra character hanging around in case he needs him. Matthew comes in handy on several occasions to portray a doctor, a journalist, a member of the Center for Disease Control, and Kimberly's mother. But ultimately, he represents thousands of gay men who have died from AIDS in near anonymity.
Initially, Blessing simply allows Kimberly to tell her story--the onset of the illness, the realization of AIDS, and her discovery of how she contracted the disease. She heard Jane Pauley's broadcast on the evening news, "...the CDC has determined that Kimberly Bergalis has contracted AIDS from her dentist."
Blessing indulges her, allowing her to speak freely of the sorrow burdening her family and the constant deluge of reporters and talk show offers. But as she gathers the sympathy of the audience, Matthew, representing all the non-famous victims of AIDS, begins to interrupt. When Kimberly complains to Matthew of being hounded by quacks with sure cures for AIDS, Matthew responds by saying, "I had to call them." As she protests her label of "Patient A," just another case study, Matthew replies, "At least your case was studied."
"Kimberly said she was an innocent person with AIDS," says Matthew. "She was right of course. Who isn't?"
On stage, Blessing grapples with the responsibility of writing this particular play. "Who are you to judge?" Matthew asks him. "Yes, who are you?" asks Kimberly. "Nobody," Blessing replies.
In Patient A, Blessing confronts mass media's obsession with the so-called "innocent victims" of AIDS--Kimberly Bergalis, Ryan White, and Arthur Ashe--while ignoring thousands of anonymous AIDS victims dying each year. He sums it up in the play's most compelling scene in which Kimberly plays no part. Having lost his lover and all of his friends before dying himself, Matthew turns to the playwright to ask about his own funeral. One person, a distant cousin with a knack for tying up loose ends, came to take care of the ashes, Blessing tells him. Matthew is glad for that.
Yvonne Huff, a talented young actress with a magnificent stage presence, plays Kimberly with grace and beauty. James Blair drops into the role of playwright Lee Blessing with such ease that I had to continually remind myself he wasn't the actual playwright. And Patrick Brian Mulchay plays Matthew, who plays many others with great humor and incisive sadness.
Deborah Dickey directs the three with a light touch of simplicity.
Invisible Theatre's production of Patient A continues through April 15 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Invisible Theatre is located at 1400 N. First Avenue at Drachman. Tickets range from $12 to $14. For reservations and more information, call 882-9721.
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