This is an absolutely absorbing medical drama performed with full-on passion by two of DC’s top-tier actors. Susan Rome plays Roz, a hematologist dedicated to her role as healer, and Tom Story plays Ray, a single dad dedicated to keeping alive his hemophiliac twin boys. The story traverses a timeline beginning in 1975, when the twins are children and blood products are still an effective treatment for hemophilia, through the “gay plague” years when the twins reach their late teens and the blood supply has been contaminated—meaning that nearly all hemophiliacs are dying of AIDs.
Though that summary of the setup sounds like a disease-of-the-month made-for-TV movie, the performances in the production at Theater J, under the compassionate direction of Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr, place before us two utterly believable whole people who are trying with all their might to do the right thing and can’t. Because offstage an ineluctable tragedy is unfolding. And there is no right thing left to do.
We see the choices they are faced with. We watch each of them agonize. We see him contest her choices, and we see her admit remorse. And steadily through this sturdy drama, we see the consequences of their decisions. When Ray says he has tried to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People, we get it: We are witnessing ruinous things happening to well-meaning people.
Not unlike as happens in real life. And not unlike how the ancient tragedians did it.
Playwright Karen Hartman’s achievement in Roz and Ray is to script a two-hander Greek tragedy. The functional Fates in her play are as real as eons ago the Fates were in myth: A virus run amok, Big Pharma, governmental indifference, medical science trying to cope—all a fickle offstage malevolence essentially impervious to human well-being. Our two heroes Roz and Ray are helpless to counteract these Fates. As indeed they cannot; they can only react. For whatever agency they may like to think they have, whatever few choices they may want to think they can make, the Fates call all the shots.
Hartman’s story does contravene one of Aristotle’s unities, however: It jumps back and forth in time. Projections appear above the stage to point us to what year we’re in. And the challenging text demands that Rome and Story, with their consummate skill, quickly recalibrate their characters’ emotional lives for scenes played out of chronological sequence. Thus as the narrative flashes to and fro, we are spared feelings of pity, grief, and fear such as the Fates called forth when the contagion was full-blown and there was yet no stopping it.
Inspired by the medical career of her late father, who treated hemophiliac children, Hartman set out to tell a story that has been missing in the succession of plays about AIDS: a story about the collateral damage from transmission through the blood supply. She did not make that up. Everything else she did. Which is why at times the play’s momentum feels a second-hand happenstance, not sui generis character-generated heat.
But for those who remember and lived through the plague years, Roz and Ray offers a rare gift. It is a chance to review that grim time from the distance of a contextualizing seeing place. Yes, there is tragedy in life. Yes, there be forces with us like the Fates. But there is always human agency left to us with one another—as for instance when Roz and Ray finally forgive each other their errors.
Roz and Ray is more than a medical drama about a disease. It is a poignant parable about the fundamental meaning of our lives.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.
Roz and Ray plays through April 29, 2018, at Theater J’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, located inside the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St., NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-777-3210 or go online.