Playwright: Margaret Edson. At: The Hypocrites at Den Theatre Heath Main Stage, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: The-Hypocrites.com; $36. Runs through: Feb. 19
The Baltimore Waltz
Playwright: Paula Vogel. At: Brown Paper Box Co. at The Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale Ave. Tickets: 800-838-3006 or BrownPaperBox.org; $20. Runs through: Feb. 19
Terminal illness usually isn't a laughing matter. But two Pulitzer Prize-winning lesbian playwrights found ways of injecting welcome humor into life-and-death situations into plays now being revived in Chicago.
Brown Paper Box Co. explores an absurdist AIDS analogy in Paula Vogel's 1992 play The Baltimore Waltz at The Frontier. Meanwhile, ovarian cancer strikes at the frightened heart and analytical head of a stern English professor in The Hypocrites' thoughtful take on Margaret Edson's 1998 drama Wit at the Den Theatre.
If asked to catch only one of the two, I'd advise Wit. The Hypocrites needs plenty of support since the critically acclaimed theater company decided to cancel the rest of its season due to unexpected financial difficulties. More vital is the fact that Wit is by far a more heart-wrenchingly moving play and The Hypocrites' strong production approaches the transcendental.
In the leading role of Dr. Vivian Bearing, the ill professor who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, Lisa Tejero is a marvel at commanding the stage. Tejero functions as both a first-person narrator looking at the indignities and humor of hospital life, and as a character weighted with questions about her past and what lies ahead through the pain of cancer treatments.
Director Marti Lyons stages Wit in the round, and has diversely cast the production with a top-notch ensemble to emphasize the universality of the play's end-of-life themes. Lovely production flourishes come in the form of Michael Stanfill's often antiseptic lighting design and Rasean Davonte Johnson's throbbing projections of Donne's poetry.
There are also projections in director Edward Rutherford's intimate take on The Baltimore Waltz. But these incongruent vacation slides are meant to prod audiences to question Vogel's script itself.
The Baltimore Waltz follows schoolteacher Anna ( Jenna Schoppe ) and her gay librarian brother, Carl ( Paul Michael Thomas ), as they tour ( and both get promiscuous ) around Europe one last time. Anna learns from a doctor ( Justin Harner, playing multiple roles ) that she has contracted a rare terminal disease from sharing toilet seats with children, and she must grapple with the implications of that bizarre twist of fate.
With The Baltimore Waltz, it's as if Vogel was writing out a parallel absurdist world full of humor to deal with the horror of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s. Unfortunately, Rutherford's young cast isn't as technically skilled with European accents or comic inflections to fully illuminate the simultaneous lightness and gravity of Vogel's script.
In our troubled political times, these illness-inspired plays of Vogel and Edson aren't exactly escapist fare. But thanks to the smart sense of humor found in both works, they're very worth your while.