One comfort in losing my mother at the age of 66 is that she comes to me in my dreams. Many nights, we get nocturnal do-overs as she stands before me healthy, warm and whole—the mother I remember, the mother as familiar to me as breathing.
With The Baltimore Waltz, playwright Paula Vogel gets a do-over with her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1988. And best of all, we get to share her funny fever dream about her brother in a swirling and gulpingly touching production at Rep Stage under the buoyant direction of Suzanne Beal.
Vogel’s play was written in the early 90s, when AIDS was a crisis and usually a death sentence. Now, nearly 25 years later, The Baltimore Waltz seems less urgently focused on an incurable disease nobody knew much about and one the powers that be marginalized as a “gay disease” and more of a whimsical rant on the unfairness of grief and loss.
What beguiles you about The Baltimore Waltz is how much fun it is—the classic movie references, the absurdities of dream logic unspooling in front of your waking eyes, the teasing and loving relationship between brother and sister.
The setting is Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Carl (Ben Cunis) lies ill with AIDS-related pneumonia. But this is not simply a hospital room ringed with IVs and apparatus, but a portal to a world of endless imagination and conjuring. Collin Ranney’s set captures the red brick façade of Hopkins and the sterile blandness of its rooms, but its balcony and winding staircase suggests other, more exotic vistas.
From here, Carl and his sister Anna (Michelle Eugene), a first-grade teacher, take off on a grand tour of Europe that is far-fetched fantasy but also rooted in the genuine feeling the siblings have for one another and the sense that their time together is short.
In their dream trip, it is Anna who is sick, with the ersatz ATD (Acquired Toilet Disease), and they travel to see a urine-swilling quack in Vienna who may be able to help.
True to Carl’s flamboyant yet precise nature, he embarks on a cultural tour of Paris, Holland, Germany and Austria—slogging through museums and galleries and casting an appreciative eye on the architecture. Anna, on the other hand, is on the sex tour, making up for lost chances by bedding every foreign stereotype you can think of—the suave Parisian waiter, the Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, the Tyrolean schoolboy, the decadent Berliner, all deliciously played to the hilt by Sasha Olinick, who with this run earns the title of the hardest working man in local show biz.
Carl and Anna are also trailed by a mysterious Third Man (Olinick again), who is straight out of the 1949 British film noir, except he is wielding a stuffed rabbit (remarkably similar to Carl’s childhood plush toy) instead of a gun. He and Carl even rendezvous on Vienna’s Ferris Wheel, just like in the movie.
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ
August 26 – September 13
Rep Stage – Horowitz Center
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
90 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Thursdays are PWYC
Even if you don’t get all The Third Man references, or those from Wuthering Heights, there is much to draw you in. The relationship between Carl and Anna is palpably real and affecting as they travel in foreign lands but cling to their familiar habits, secret language and inside jokes.
In Vogel’s imagining, Carl is idealized, but Cunis deepens the character with exact, telling detail. His carriage, the supple way he moves from European capital to capital gives us insight into a man of natural elegance and oddity.
Eugene is a revelation as Anna, someone flummoxed by dying and grief but then again so artfully composed and self-aware and so damn smart and funny. Eugene plays her as someone who knows what she’s doing is pure denial, but hey, can’t a girl have a little fun before the pain sets in?
Together, Cunis and Eugene are a sweet, so-right pair, perfect partners for the dance of life and what comes after. Vogel’s play and this tender production show us that loss is not a thin, gray line but is more like love itself–lusty, loopy and beyond our control.
The Baltimore Waltz by Paula Vogel . Directed Suzanne Beal . Featuring Ben Cunis, Michelle Eugene and Sasha Olinick . Set Design: Collin Ranney . Light Design: Marianne Meadows . Sound Design: William D’Eugenio . Costume Design: Jessica Welch . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jayna Blanchard.