April 20, 2018 at 9:33 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Theater J’s ‘Roz and Ray’ mines early years of HIV
Roz and Ray review, gay news, Washington Blade

Susan Rome and Tom Story in ‘Roz and Ray.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Theater J)

‘Roz and Ray’
Through April 29
Theater J
1529 16th St.

Roz and Ray review

Though not the usual play about HIV/AIDS, Theater J’s current offering, “Roz and Ray” by Karen Hartman, tells an important story of both queer history and the history of HIV/AIDS in America. While it’s widely known that hemophiliacs were hit hard at the onset of the crisis, the disturbing details surrounding what happened to those boys and how drug companies were involved isn’t common knowledge. Here, the facts are laid bare.

Directed by Theater J out artistic director Adam Immerwahr, the San Diego-set two hander spans some tough years, 1976-1987, and one difficult day in 1991. Dedicated pediatric hematologist/oncologist Roz (Theater J associate artist Susan Rome) is charged with the complicated care of the hemophilic young twin sons of single father Ray (local favorite Tom Story). The play focuses on the pair’s unlikely relationship and how Roz reacts when new wonder drug, Factor VIII, is discovered to be giving patients HIV/AIDS at an enormously high rate.

Factor VIII was a pooled blood product derived from plasma. And because it was a concentrated blood product, each dose contained blood from up to 20,000 donors, very often drawn from high risk populations, at a time before heat treatment was used to remove the virus from blood products. The implications were staggering.

“Roz and Ray” spoke to Immerwahr immediately. He says that Theater J, a Jewish theater company, “has a long history dealing with plays that tackle tricky questions about values. How do you live in the world and make decisions you make and how do you do the right thing in impossible situations? For us theses are deeply Jewish questions.”

Immerwahr says it was a tricky time because while a few hemophiliac children in the early ‘80s had died of gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) and eight more exhibited symptoms, Factor VIII was also responsible for keeping children alive and giving them normal lifespans. Conflicting information from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Hemophilia Association flummoxed doctors and parents.

Smartly, Hartman doesn’t tell an HIV/AIDS story without including gay men. Ray was married to his sons’ mother and is having episodic relationships with men.

“At the time, many more men were closeted and came out well into adulthood in a gradual shifting and changing way,” Immerwahr says. “And that’s what Ray does. To be coming out of closet while HIV/AIDS crisis at its height is an interesting time in gay history, His coming to terms with his sexuality and eventual public identification as gay takes the course of the play.”

For out actor Tom Story, Ray offers some firsts: “He’s an interesting character, a type that I haven’t played before. He’s from Texas, smart but uneducated. He married young and after his wife leaves him, he becomes the single father of two young sons. I’ve never played a father.”

Story also says his characters possible bisexuality adds layers for him to work with.

“We want to categorize people,” Story says. “He does eventually come out. And he talks about waiting to be free. But still, Ray is capable of having fulfilling sexual and emotional relationships with women. That’s unusual onstage.”

Then there’s his complicated relationship with Roz. They share an interest in Ray’s sons’ wellbeing. They meet when the kids are 7. She gives them life changing drug that turns out to be deadly. “It’s a love story in some ways but there’s a lot of rage,” Story says. “They get into a romantic thing and she wants him to be mother to his kids. It’s about attraction and survival.”

Hartman’s play is devastatingly sad. It’s also timely.

“We as a society want regulations or some might call them protection in the products we interact with. In a quiet way the play makes a statement on what the role of profit motivated companies is in protection us or failing to protect us,” Immerwahr says.

“When the play takes place, a lot of gay men were acting up in response to HIV/AIDS, but unfortunately it was hard for the hemophilia community to ally with them,” he says. “Many of them saw gays as the enemy who were polluting the blood supply. ‘Roz and Ray’ is a complicated story told by two extraordinary performers. It’s also a wonderful way to learn history.”

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