Chicago is getting a double dose of drama from Seattle-based playwright Karen Hartman. The rolling world premiere of her play Roz and Ray is now at Victory Gardens Theater following an earlier run at Seattle Repertory Theatre, while The Book of Joseph gets its world premiere in January at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
"My husband is from Chicago and my mother was born in Chicago, so I'm delighted to be a part of the Chicago theater season," said Hartman, who generally uses the expression "I was married to a woman, but now I'm married to a man" to be open about her bisexuality and she fits into the LGBTQ community acronym.
The commissioning of The Book of Joseph, a fact-based drama about the life, letters and American descendants of World War II-era Jewish Polish emigre Joseph A. Hollander, actually spurred Hartman to explore an aspect of her own troubled family history by writing Roz and Ray. It all stems from Hartman's late father and his career as a pediatric hematologist-oncologist from the 1970s through the early 1990s.
"He treated children with hemophilia during the 'golden age' of a new medication, Factor 8, which allowed very sick patients to lead normal healthy lives, something akin to what injectable insulin has done for kids with diabetes," Hartman said in a statement. "Then HIV entered the blood supply. His patients got very sick and most of them died of AIDS. Families and patients felt betrayed and enraged. My father and his colleagues, previously cherished as healers, were blamed as murderers."
Hartman didn't want to write a biographical play, but she did want to explore personal, political and historical ramifications of the situation and era. So Hartman switched the doctor's gender ( Mary Beth Fisher plays Roz ), while the titular Ryan ( Steppenwolf ensemble member James Vincent Meredith ) became a single father with twin hemophiliac sons.
"I feel that Karen is one of the few great political playwrights in the American theater," said out Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, who directed Roz and Ray in Seattle and now Chicago. "Not only this time has she tried to find a way to talk about something that's personal with her father and indeed herself, she's also brought into huge relief a hidden population and maybe an invisible population who are not given enough time on our stagesthat was the community of hemophiliacs during the beginning of the AIDS plague."
Hartman also heightened the drama in her play by making Ray a closeted man who has sex with other men.
"I got the idea around 2005, but sat with it because the juvenile hemophilia aspect of the AIDS crisis was just part of the play. To write about AIDS without a gay character would lose the central tragedy of this epidemic, which is because of the stigma toward gay men and secondarily drug users, research didn't happen and our response was slow," Hartman said. "That social piece of shame and stigma and unequal treatment by the government is a key reason why AIDS spiraled out of control the way that it did."
Hartman said the role of Ray is written with some flexibility around the casting. So it wasn't an issue when Yew decided to cast Black actors as Ray in his productions to also reflect how the African-American community was particularly hit hard by AIDS.
"I was interested to explore what it means to be on the down low. This man is so heavily closeted, it also allowed AIDS to be something that was very unspoken in the community for it to be a huge outbreak," Yew said. "It also creates a larger racial status and a gulf for ( Ray and Roz ) to broach, so I think that's very helpful for this play."
With back-to-back Seattle and Chicago productions of Roz and Ray, Hartman has enjoyed the experience of writing for different casts who bring different questions to the characters and the historical context. Hartman also said Roz and Ray is now taking on a different resonance for the LGBTQ community following the recent U.S. presidential election.
"This play takes place during a very hostile time during the Reagan years mostly and Bush Sr., and it presents a sickening disconnect between the government and the needs of the people and it's based upon a hate and fear and discrimination," Hartman said. "I'm sorry to say that I think that we are leaving an era when many of us have felt some kinship with our government and entering the era of a hostile government, so there may be lessons from studying the Reagan era. We can only hope that it won't be worse than that."
Hartman's Roz and Ray continues through Sunday, Dec. 11, at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Previews through Nov. 17 are $15-$40. Regular run tickets are $15-$60; call 773-871-3000 or visit VictoryGardens.org .
Hartman's The Book of Joseph plays from Sunday, Jan. 29, through Sunday, March 5, Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $38-$48; call 312-595-5600 or visit ChicagoShakes.com for more information.