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The Weekend Theatre takes on "Raft of the Medusa"

Little Rock's socially-conscious theatre company, The Weekend Theatre, is set to open Raft of the Medusa, a drama about AIDS. Details below.

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At a time when AIDS rarely makes front-page headlines anymore, the Weekend Theater’s presentation of “Raft of the Medusa” is a potent reminder to shake us out of the complacent fallacy that 30-plus years into the epidemic, the disease is tamed, no need for worry anymore.

“It may not be a show everyone will want to see twice, but everyone should see it at least once,” says cast member Rachel Bland.

Joe Pintauro’s drama presents a microcosm of those affected through the device of a diverse therapy group clashing, confronting, and comforting each other as they work through their emotions about their devastating diagnosis.

The play opens Friday, Nov. 2, at the performance space located at Seventh and Chester streets in downtown Little Rock. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 17. Ralph Hyman directs, marking his 50th production at the theater.

Tickets, $16 for general admission and $12 for students and seniors age 65 and older, can be purchased on-line at www.weekendtheater.org or, based on availability, at the door. For information only, call 501-374-3761; reservations are not taken by phone.

The action takes place in 1988, at a time when getting the HIV-positive diagnosis was still considered an automatic death sentence – the retroviral drugs that today provide a chance of survival and controlling the symptoms had not yet come on the scene, and researchers were desperately trying to find any treatment.

Director Hyman says that having led an AIDS group in his psychotherapy practice for more than 10 years, he finds this play a very honest and accurate portrayal of what the first wave of PWA's (People With Aids) went through in the late 80's.

As cast member Ryan Whitfield notes, “It’s extremely raw and not sugar-coated.”

The title of the play was inspired by the painting of the same name by French artist Theodore Gericault, which depicts the aftermath of a tragic 1816 shipwreck in which the survivors hastily constructed a raft to get away – but still, most of them lost their lives to starvation and the elements.

Although the artwork isn’t directly invoked during the play, it does provide certain thematic undercurrents, in particular, the idea that even when the situation seems hopeless, clinging to your fellow human beings might be your best chance to stay afloat.

We first see Donald (Jimmy Walker) die in the arms of his lover, Michael (Ryan Whitfield), before segueing into the central action of the group therapy meeting led by psychiatrist Jerry (Alan Douglas). Yes, there are several gay and bisexual individuals in the group, but also several other types spanning all races, sexual orientations, and income levels, among them a professional woman, a high school girl, a drug dealer, and a homeless woman.

Those group members are played by Rachel Bland as Nairobi, Brad Burleson as Alec, Dale Ellis as Bob, Drew Ellis as Doug, Madison Hannahs as Cora, Morgan Henard as Tommy, Grace Lytle as Felicia, Josh Peace as Alan, Byron Taylor as Larry, and Manny Urban as Jimmy.

Although they’re all in the same boat, they’re on different points in the journey, experiencing grief, anger, or acceptance. “And when they clash, the confrontation is epic,” says Madison Hannahs.

They rage about who to blame for how they got AIDS, how the U.S. government is doing so little to fund research into treatments, about society’s responsibility for the epidemic. Even so, everyone ultimately recognizes that this is their “safe place,” where they won’t be ostracized, and where they can attain at least a certain measure of comfort.

Working on the play has been quite a learning experience for all the cast, several note, particularly the younger ones born well after AIDS became a given in American life. And despite the elements of the script that date the story to a particular time – for example, the still reverberating shock over actor Rock Hudson’s death from the disease – the themes of confrontation, not sweeping everything under the carpet, still resonate powerfully today.

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