Theater J continues to upend the question what makes a play Jewish with its latest production, the two-hander “Roz and Ray,” which runs at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center through April 29. Penned by Seattle-based playwright Karen Hartman, it examines an episode in the early years of the AIDS/HIV crisis and reverberates with tough ethical questions.
Theater J’s taut production, directed by its in-house artistic director Adam Immerwahr, puts a bevy of ethical dilemmas that haunt a pediatric hematologist (Susan Rome) and a father of two boys with hemophilia (Tom Story) into sharp focus.
The stark hospital setting designed by Debra Booth is all business — fluorescent lights casting a gray-green glow (lighting by Nancy Schertler) and a regulation steel desk atop industrial linoleum — place the early clownish antics (to sooth her child patients) and saintly empathy Dr. Roz Kagan demonstrates in high relief. She instructs these unseen patients — Ray’s twin 7-year-olds — in how to inject a brand-new treatment, Factor VIII, which will staunch the unclottable bleeding a cut or bruise causes.
As scenes toggle between 1976 — Dr. Roz’s first meeting with the twin and their father — and 1991, Roz and Ray’s final encounter, Hartman weaves a compelling story drawing on both the history of treatment of hemophilia and the development of the AIDS crisis. It’s as much a medical drama as a political one, with some personal dealings that border on shockingly uncomfortable.
Virtually no one could have predicted that the miracle drug, which allowed previously isolated and frequently hospitalized children with hemophilia to lead normal lives, would end up devastating an entire generation of patients — and their families.
While “Roz and Ray” deals with this traumatic personal disaster, it takes to task the ethical conundrum that some doctors, researchers and medical suppliers foresaw: that Factor VIII could be tainted and could infect patients. The clues, the playwright notes, were already evident when some patients on the drug, which was derived from blood, became infected with hepatitis B.
As Roz Kagan, Theater J regular Susan Rome initially presents us with a near-saintly doctor. She’s willing to go so far as to inject herself with saline to teach her young charges to inject the life-sustaining Factor VIII (for the squeamish, this is depicted onstage).
As the conflict develops, her flaws, too, become apparent. Tom Story in the role of the father plays a good ol’ Texan. He wants his boys to grow up “big and strong,” not like the playground taunt “homo hemos” that he’s heard. Yet, he carries his own secrets. Hartman complicates the medical drama with a love story that is so highly improbable and controversial that it muddies the ethical dilemmas both characters face.
Over 90 minutes, without intermission, “Roz and Ray” raises moral quandaries about doctor-patient relationships, treatment decisions, rationing and balancing experimental drugs and new treatments for needy patients with unknown risks.
And an AIDS play set in the 1990s can’t ignore the politicization of the disease and President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to acknowledge the epidemic or support research. Most interestingly, Hartman takes on Big Pharma, strafing the dependence medical organizations, many non-profit and research-based, have on patients and their families to use products derived from for-profit drug purveyors or risk often experimental options that haven’t been fully vetted by scientific protocols. “Roz and Ray” is, indeed, heartbreaking, providing a single snapshot of the devastating results hemophilia has had for generations on families whose sons (because it’s almost always struck boys) suffered with the disease.
This second “medical/scientific ethics” play on Theater J’s schedule in as many seasons raises the question once more: what makes a distinctively Jewish Theater? “Roz and Ray” features tenuous links to a Jewish story arc or Jewishly relevant subject or characters.
Sure, the character Roz is ostensibly Jewish — her last name is Kagan, she gives Ray the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, and later she is accused of colluding with Jewish lawyers, but it could as easily have been produced at any number of local stages around town with the same effect.
Should Theater J be more Jewish in asserting its unique voice and platform? Merely producing plays written by Jewish authors, or with vaguely Jewish — I call it Seinfeld Jewish — characters isn’t necessary in American theater circles in the 21st century.
Audiences in the Washington region are fortunate to have a surfeit of excellent theater companies that produce good, and sometimes great, works, many by Jewish artists featuring strongly Jewish themes and characters: Mosaic, Round House, Signature, Studio, Arena Stage and Metro Stage.
Jews have made notable marks on the American dramatic canon and theaters everywhere continue to produce the classic Jewish playwrights — the Arthur Millers, Neil Simons and Wendy Wassersteins — while also introducing new young and fresh Jewish voices to the stage. Is it too much to ask Theater J to produce “theater that celebrates, explores and struggles with the complexities and nuances of the Jewish experience and the universal human condition” — its mission statement — with a little more attention to the “Jewish”?
“Roz and Ray,” by Karen Hartman; through April 29; Theater J at Edlavitch DC JCC, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington; $39-$69; tickets at theaterj.org or call 202-777-3210.