With a bare set and only two seen characters, Roz and Ray draws your focus to the weight of words between people. This intimate production, directed by Adam Immerwahr, Artistic Director of Theater J, wastes no time or aesthetics on distracting you from stark realities under harsh hospital lighting. Instead, it hurtles headlong through 11 years of mistakes during the AIDS crisis between 1976 and 1987, and one pivotal day in 1991 in San Diego, California.
A clever projection that transforms an EKG monitor into a timeline guides the audience as we jump back and forth in time from before doctors knew that HIV had infected the country’s blood supply, to the panicked aftermath. Swift switches in lighting and sound schemes, and the orientation of actors addressing either us as myriad audiences or each other on stage, keep us fairly grounded in the story phases, with occasional moments of unintended confusion. But playwright Karen Hartman’s superb choice to reveal the pivotal tragedy within the first five minutes of the play, and Immerwahr’s unapologetic staging of it, sets this production up for deep contemplation and thematic reflection.
Whether through protest chants or personal put-downs, Ray Leon’s repetitive speech patterns evoke the frustration of being a single parent supporting hemophiliac children who must repeatedly fight for his kids’ survival. As the doctor of Ray’s twin sons, Dr. Roz Kagan’s gift to Ray of the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, provides a crucial link between two different genocidal events in history.
Before American doctors knew, but after the pharmaceutical industry had concealed, the pervasive contamination of medical blood supplies by the HIV virus, doctors administered a revolutionary hemophilia treatment that also transmitted the virus to tens of thousands of patients. As a spiraling consequence of pharmaceutical companies’ criminal negligence, the medical industry’s plodding change, and public prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community, 90 percent of severe hemophiliacs in the United States tested positive for HIV by 1987. 10,000 people who sought treatment for hemophilia died of AIDS instead.
In this historical context where life hinges on every choice to speak up or stay silent, the characters select their words deliberately. Throughout the play, Roz and Ray distinguish between active and passive tense. A monologue about Ray’s son who shatters glassware in the house contrasts the concepts of “accident” and “negligence.” An ex “happened to me,” but a person doesn’t pass away; someone kills them. Even names have symbolic weight; whether Ray calls Roz a doctor or a nurse matters, and the fact that Ray calls his sons “Ray-Ray and Mikey” while Roz refers to them as “Raymond and Michael” reveals contrasting mindsets. The play also leans into homophones by loudly confronting the derogatory term “hemo homo” to draw parallels between the abuse of gay people and hemophiliacs.
Unlike Arena Stage’s recent production of Sovereignty, another play that traces decades of traumatic history, Theater J’s production of Roz and Ray gives Hartman’s small moments ample room to breathe. In one scene, Ray spends five minutes giving Roz the pep talk she needs to play Santa Claus at the office Christmas party. The scene does little to further the historic plot, but conveys volumes about Roz’s insecurity and Ray’s generosity. Under Immerwahr’s attentive direction, the introduction of a simple Santa suit and dynamic blocking into a spare scene dramatically opens the audience’s empathy and understanding of the characters. Silliness transforms into heartbreaking beauty as we watch a closeted gay man teach a Jewish woman doctor how to put on a brave face and a costume to meet the expectations of peers and children.
Roz and Ray
closes April 29, 2018
Details and tickets
As the Elvis Presley-loving Ray, Tom Story emanates warmth and passion; his southern vocal inflections and working man’s plaid shirt offset Roz’s medical vocabulary and pristine white coat. As Dr. Roz, a female doctor in a profession dominated by men, Susan Rome has the vocal and emotional range to fiercely defend her medical judgments in public, while crumbling under self-doubt in private. As the goofy half of this odd couple, Story upholds his reputation as a comedic gem of D.C. by delivering many waggish lines that break the tension of a depressing context. For example, at one point, Roz wrestles between her intuition as a doctor and the politics and procedures of her profession. “I cannot say ‘worried.’ It’s a ‘feeling word,’” she says to dismiss her gut reaction, to which Ray replies, “Doctors are weird!” Such interplay convinces the audience that Roz and Ray depend on each other for complementary strengths and perspectives. Throughout the play, the audience feels the push and pull of the boundaries between patient, family, and long-term care provider. But when the play shifts from Ray’s desire for Roz to “be the doctor” to “be my family,” the chemistry between these actors falls short. Yet, perhaps that discomfort in romance makes the characters’ ultimate relationship feel more satisfying.
Above all, this production feels deeply personal. Hartman wrote this award-winning play as a love letter to her late father, a hemotologist/oncologist in the 1980s and ’90s who, like Dr. Roz, suffered through the anguish of watching countless patients waste away and die. The most effective theatrical device in this production bookends the play in the form of a ritual that Dr. Roz performs of preparing a hypodermic needle for herself before asking anyone else to undergo an injection. “Every one of my patients stuck a needle in my arm,” she says to illustrate her personal investment in the survival of her patients. In the end, actions speak louder than words. Despite the infuriatingly familiar national backdrop of political turmoil for gay rights and feminism, the audience invests all of its energy in the relationship between two people sitting in a private room together.
The final moments of this production, during which the lights draw in tightly on two fully realized characters, elevate the story from relatable to deeply moving. This surprisingly funny and uplifting production, transfused with courage and kindness, will prove a balm to whatever ails you.
Roz and Ray by Karen Hartman . Directed by Adam Immerwahr . Starring Susan Rome as Dr. Roz Kagan and Tom Story as Ray Leon. Scenic design by Debra Booth. Costume design by Danielle Preston. Lighting design by Nancy Schertler. Sound design by Karin Graybash. Projection design by Alexandra Kelly Colburn. Props by Kevin Laughon. Assistant Director: Peter Danelski. Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie. Assistant Stage Managers: Jenny Rubin and and Corinne Williams. Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Kate Colwell.