Written and directed by Stephen Svoboda
at Connecticut Repertory Theatre's Nafe Katter Theatre on the campus of the University of Connecticut through March 4
In the 1980s and 1990s the theatre community, hit hard by the AIDS epidemic, produced urgent and powerful plays about the disease: Falsettos, The Normal Heart, Rent, and Love! Valour! Compassion!, to name a few. At the time, a diagnosis was pretty much equivalent to a death sentence and dramatists railed against the lack of government funding, societal/familial abandonment, and blinding fear. Two decades later, at least in the United States, AIDS has become less top of mind, thanks in large part to better drug therapies, longer life expectancies, and unfortunate apathy. The “AIDS play” is now hard to find.
Playwright and director Stephen Svoboda, an HIV positive man who lost his partner to the disease, seeks to recast and reinvigorate the AIDS play in his drama Odysseus D.O.A., a work about people living and dying with the disease. Like its forebear Angels in America (the Mount Everest of the genre), it refuses to play the story of a dying man straight (pun intended). Where Angels had one flying through time and locations, blending fantasy and reality, Odysseus D.O.A. sets its characters sailing on choppy seas seeking the glory (or “kleos,” from the Greek) of Homer’s hero.
Running now through March 4th at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter space, the production balances the epic and the intimate. Elliot, an Ivy League novelist, has landed in the AIDS ward of a hospital when he is stricken with swelling of the brain. Rendering his speech severely stunted, Elliot constantly records everything that is said in his presence in a tattered journal. As such, he has become his own Homer. Forced to surrender her son to a health care system she does not trust, Elliot’s mother sets her “Rain Man”-like son adrift on uncertain seas. In the ward, Elliot comes into contact and conflict with the other patients, parents, and medical professionals. The action shifts out of reality and into Elliot’s imagination where he is on Odysseus’ grand adventure, blurring The Odyssey’s gods and monsters with the denizens of the AIDS ward.
This is certainly a lot to chew on and the play’s running time of over two hours is warranted. The busy production, directed by the playwright, seems a bit over-stuffed at times with projections, flashy lights and sounds, and twirling hospital paraphernalia. The set, designed by Allison McGrath, manages to be both hospital-sterile and an homage to Greek architecture.
The cast is strong, particularly John Bixler as Elliot and daytime television star Kim Zimmer (Reva Shayne on The Guiding Light) as his mother. Bixler convincingly and touchingly embodies the intellectual man-child that Elliot has become under the stern and watchful gaze of his mother. Zimmer mutates from fiercely protective and closed to liberated as her son declines.
The other patients, in some instances living with HIV and others dying of AIDS, are rendered well by Desmond Thorne (the sassy transsexual Resean), Briana Maia (the street tough Maha), and Anthony J. Goes (the thuggish Nick). They act as foils and a Greek chorus for Elliot as he makes his way through his final days. The weak link in the cast is Coles Prince as the clubby twink Adam who is in the late stages of the disease. Elliot’s sudden romantic attachment to Adam, who is in-and-out of catatonia, comes out of nowhere and Prince’s healthful performance registers a little too high on the chipper scale for someone confronting his own mortality.
An odd choice is to have the characters seemingly devoid of the wasting symptoms of AIDS and its opportunistic infections. None of them seem physically unhealthy and then, suddenly, they deteriorate. We hear how sick they are, but we don’t really see it. As a person who has lost friends to the disease, the slow and wrenching progression of the illness is painful to witness. It seems a facile approach to an extremely painful end.
Certainly the playwright’s intent is to give these characters a degree of heroism and glory as they head home, but Elliot’s confused flights of mythological fantasy need to buttressed by the all-to-real specter of the disease. Svoboda’s passion for his subject is clearly heartfelt and meritorious. A basic knowledge of The Odyssey is advisable for attendees to get the most out of the play, but it is a brave journey worth taking.