AIDS gets personal

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February 19, 2010

1:25 AM

In the years since its first case was reported, the HIV epidemic hasn’t really gone away. New treatments have been discovered, of course, but there is still little that can prepare someone for the shock of a positive diagnosis.

Coping with the situation is difficult enough for the victim, but having to deal with a family who reacts to the news with anger, ignorance or fear makes the deadly struggle even worse. These are the tribulations of one deeply conflicted man in Cheryl West’s play “Before it Hits Home,” produced by Jason Blackwell ’10 for the College of William and Mary’s Second Season.

As the lights go up we are introduced to Wendal, played by Logan Scott ’13. Wendal a musician in the throes of supreme confidence, undeterred by the telltale coughs and lesions slowly pointing to a fatal prognosis.

As the symptoms become more and more intrusive, Wendal realizes he must tell the people he treasures most what has happened — his lovers, Simone (Cienna Wesley ’12), and Douglass (Randall Taylor ’08), and his family: his mother Reba, father Bailey, brother Junior and son Dwayne.

His growing physical pain and his family’s emotional trauma after he breaks the news comprise the bulk of the story, and presumably the bulk of the drama.

Unfortunately for this cast and crew, West did not provide the depth necessary to tell such a story. The characters the play presents are outlets for these themes, but are largely caricatures. With the exceptions of Wendal, Bailey and Reba, who defy type and convention, the characters in “Before it Hits Home” may as well have been cut out of cardboard. There are parts of West’s that have been done to death: the worried lover, the doctor who’s seen it all before. West makes no effort to infuse these people with any characteristics that are recognizably human. Yet, the actors do their best to inhabit these roles, and several of them shine through the stereotypes.

One actor worth looking out for is Jamar Jones ’13 as Junior, the army brother, who hides his fear of the unknown beneath a mask of posturing and bluster. Also superb is Regenea Hurte as the family friend and neighbor whose good humor and optimism stand in stark contrast to her phobic reaction to Wendal’s disease. And in a small but memorable role, Eden Stuart ’13 plays an HIV patient who meets Wendal in the hospital and shows Wendal the cost of his imminent diagnosis.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the cliched characters in the supporting cast, the leads are that much more compelling. Scott gives us a marvelously layered Wendal, who exudes confidence and style at the outset; his transformation into a weak and helpless invalid never feels forced or unnatural. He struggles with the truth, accepts it, succumbs to it, and watches his life fall apart over the course of two acts — and it is absolutely heart-breaking.

Ashley Ward ’12 also excels as Reba, whose kindness and understanding in the first act belie the erupting volcano she becomes in the second. Bailey (Renzy Bryant ’09) is Wendal’s troubled, angry father, who seems ready to lash out at his son at a moment’s notice. When the truth comes out, the nuances of his response subvert audience expectations and are fascinating to behold.

The acting in this production is inspired enough to make the trite characters a minor flaw, which is no easy task, but the play seems determined to dull the talent present. The first act is plagued with bland dialogue, an excess of characters, and a meandering plot that stubbornly refuses to tread new ground until midway through.

Although the first half boasts one of the more clever devices of the play — a conversation between Wendal and his two lovers that takes place in separate bedrooms — it dwells on Wendal’s diagnosis longer than necessary and has very little tension to break up the monotony. By the second act, however, a time bomb has been placed in the room, and every audience member knows it. The conflict appears so quickly, and without warning, that one almost wonders where the first half of this play went.

“Before it Hits Home” is not a perfect play, but with a strong cast and Blackwell’s inventive staging, the jagged narrative gains shape and focus, molding a half-formed story into an effective, if uneven, modern tragedy. The AIDS outbreak may have fallen out of favor with the modern media, but in the rough-hewn drama of this production, there is an authenticity and an anguish that no news report could hope to provide.

The show will be playing Friday and Saturday at Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall with shows at 8 p.m.

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