The AIDS crisis of the 1980s may have quelled and the protests and demands that the government respond may have subsided, but the fact is there are still millions of people affected by this deadly disease. Thanks to a regimen of cocktail medicines, many HIV-positive patients in the U.S. live a prolonged and productive life without ever seeing the effects of full-blown AIDS.
That is not the case in Africa or other third-world countries, where the spread of AIDS is one of the most serious challenges facing young adults. Back in the early 1990s, though, two cases captured the attention of the America public. One was hemophiliac Ryan White, who received AIDS as a result of the then tainted blood supply and the other was Kimberly Bergalis, a Florida girl, who was the first known victim of clinical transmission of AIDS. Reportedly, Bergalis was infected by her dentist, Dr. David Acer, who had contracted HIV through unprotected sex with a host of men.
Bergalis had neither been a hemophiliac, an intravenous drug user or had allegedly ever been intimate with any sexual partner. She was an anomaly and became the poster girl for innocent AIDS victims. When she finally died in 1991, her story had been broadcast many times across the globe, but her shell-shocked family members wanted to do more to make sure her story was never forgotten.
Bergalis' parents commissioned playwright Lee Blessing to write a play about Bergalis' tragically unfulfilled life and he chose an unusual tack. He created a character in the play who was himself, the playwright charged with bringing her story to the stage. His character, that of the unnamed dentist, her parents and a succession of other characters - one representing Acer's many anonymous sexual partners - parade across a very stark stage with one large sofa bed, a chair and a lamp.
The starkness of the staging is used to remarkable effect by director C. Patrick Gendusa in the Loyola University presentation of "Patient A," now running for two more performances tonight and tomorow night. Gendusa uses three players: Natalie Jones in the role of Bergalis, Austin Broussard as Lee and Blaine Simon as Matthew, who plays the dentist and a host of other characters.
The entire play runs approximately 70 minutes with no intermission and helps to keep in focus the insidious nature of the disease and the tragic implications of how lives, professions and dreams are destroyed by the spread of AIDS.
Jones plays her titular role with wistfulness and tenderness. Blessing lets the audience know of her demise at the outset, allowing her character to speak in flashback without recrimination or accusation. Even the character who portrays the dentist is not vilified; Blessing shows him as more of a victim too.
The horror of a life cut so tragically short is at the heart of Blessing's story, but his own character is conflicted and many times sets up the other characters to answer what he cannot fathom himself. It is a most unusual device for any playwright to use and, for the most part, effective.
Gendusa and his talented cast of student actors are to be congratulated. While they may not have been born at the time of Bergalis' death, they still are able to bring a measure of deep meaning and humanity to this play so that it still has much to resonate to today's audiences.
In effect the play says there is no reason to try to find blame. The disease knows no heroes or villains, only victims. The young actors shape their characters with dignity and respect throughout the one-act play, many times smiling knowingly at each other.
"Patient A" continues at the Lower Depths Theater at Loyola University through Saturday night. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m.