The Syracuse University Department of Drama in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) continues its season with Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning play “The Baltimore Waltz.” Directed by drama faculty member Katherine McGerr, the play runs March 30 – April 8 in the Storch Theatre at the Syracuse Stage/Department of Drama Complex. Opening night is Saturday, March 31. Tickets may be purhased online or by contacting the Box Office at 315.443.3275.
Playwright Vogel, who has a well-established reputation for treating difficult situations with humor and compassion, wrote “The Baltimore Waltz” as a response to the death of her brother Carl from AIDS in 1988. The play premiered Off-Broadway in 1992, where it won the Obie for Best New American Play. Since then it has been produced at regional theaters around the country and received an Off-Broadway revival.
Director McGerr points out that “The Baltimore Waltz” is not a memoir but rather a fictionalized account whose inspiration derives from a letter Carl wrote to the playwright during his illness. The letter—light-hearted and sincere—reveals Carl’s clear-eyed acceptance of his fate and offers some suggestions for his funerary service: open casket, full drag, among the options.
Another source of inspiration was Vogel’s recollection that two years prior to his death, Carl had invited her on a trip to Europe. Not knowing he was ill at the time, she declined. In writing “The Baltimore Waltz,” Vogel imagined a madcap version of that trip in which a woman, terminally ill with a mysterious disease, is spirited away by her brother on a whirlwind, last-grasp-at-life tour of Europe. A subplot, inspired by the famous film noir classic “The Third Man,” involves a search for an improbable cure for the woman’s illness.
The close juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in the play is reflective of real life, according to McGerr. “There are so many moments in life where you’re sort of walking this edge between being highly ridiculous and also incredibly depressing and sad,” she said. “You don’t deny one or the other, they just sort of coexist in this very vulnerable, profound way. I think of them of actually feeding and raising the stakes for each rather than being in opposition.”
McGerr explained that she considers “The Baltimore Waltz” a play of its time, but one that has relevance for today’s audience. Some audience members, she said, will be too young to remember the fear and panic wrought by the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. “The way, at the time, people felt about AIDS. There was a lot of fear because we didn’t know how it spread,” she said. “That fear spiraled out of control. There really isn’t any counterpart to that today.”
Still, McGerr said she believes the play is timely because it offers an opportunity to “look at what has and what hasn’t changed in terms of our perception of disease and our perception of homosexuality.”
Moreover, while AIDS related deaths have decreased worldwide by 48 percent since 2005, the disease is still a significant health issue. As of 2016, some 36.7 million people were living with HIV worldwide. Of those, 30 percent do not know they are infected. More than one million new cases are reported each year.