The Keegan Theatre’s The Baltimore Waltz is a confrontation of mortality, a hilarious farce, an exposé of the limits of the medical system, a noir thriller, and crucially, a flawlessly staged and acted production. The play’s many facets and refusal to map its themes on to a traditional three act structure might frustrate the more literally-minded. But even when the production’s fantastical world does not seem strictly real, its beating heart feels very, very true.
Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz as an ode to her late brother, who died from AIDS before they had the chance to travel Europe together. This knowledge, conveyed in the program and in simple lobby displays, helps ground the delightfully absurd story. Anna, an elementary school teacher, has contracted the new, deadly, and little-understood Acquired Toilet Disease (ATD) from her students. She and her brother Carl embark on a last tour of Europe, with a final stop at an experimental doctor’s office in Vienna. Over the course of the trip, Carl gets sucked in to a shady organization that might hold a cure, Anna defies death by sleeping with as many men as possible, and they both go through the stages of grief.
Brianna Letourneau is fantastic as Anna, balancing the hilarity of the character’s lust against the tragedy of her diagnosis with precision and grace. She has a believable sibling sweetness with Ray Ficca as Carl, which keeps the piece grounded even in the script’s more absurd moments. And Ray Ficca is a joy as the third member of the ensemble, doubling as all of the remaining characters (including the mad doctor and Anna’s many sexual conquests). All three infuse their performances with deft physical humor and emotional truth.
They have a gorgeous stage to play on thanks to Matthew J. Kennan’s beautiful two-level set and G. Ryan Smith‘s effective lighting design. Everything, from Cindy Landrum Jacobs’ delightfully funny props to Niusha Nawab’s sometimes overwhelming sound design, keeps the play humming towards its gut-punch of an ending.
There’s so much to unpack in The Baltimore Waltz: Anna’s promiscuity, the coded references to Carl’s sexuality, and the utter lunacy of the doctors on offer are all deeply about the heartbreak of the AIDS crisis, without ever naming the epidemic. And when the romp around Europe unravels and reveals itself as fantasy, that heartbreak is what remains. Here is a disease so horrendously cruel that the only way to understand it is through ridiculous metaphor. I think that is why we go to theatre and why we make it: to understand the indescribable. I highly recommend The Baltimore Waltz.
The Baltimore Waltz runs at the Keegan Theatre through February 9th. You can buy tickets here.
Photo Credit: Cameron Whitman