Jeff Burchfield gives a brilliant performance in The Dressing Room, a new play by Susan Hussey at the Falk Theater. As Keith, a drag queen with AIDS, Burchfield's emotions run the gamut; he is bitchy and tender, funny and sad. But there is one thing he is not _ in denial. At no time does he shrink from the fact he is going to die.
That tough-minded realism probably stems in part from the play's origin. It was a collaborative effort by Hussey and a gay man with AIDS, pseudonymously identified as S. Kane. The two met in 1990 as part of Tampa's AIDS Art-Reach project, and they had weekly conversations until Kane's death last year. Hussey has taken the raw material of their relationship and transformed it into a moving drama.
Set in Keith's apartment, The Dressing Room amounts to a series of dialogues between him and two other characters: his mother and a woman named Charlotte, who has breast cancer. For a play about terminal illness, it is surprisingly funny. At one point, Keith recollects that he was tested for AIDS when he went to his doctor with a case of athlete's foot. "I go to the doctor for a foot rash and find out I'm HIV-positive," he tells Charlotte.
As Keith's mother, Madeline Oliveri is responsible for some true-to-life moments, treating her youngest son with "the usual mix of praise and blame," according to Keith. Mother and son don't talk about his homosexuality, but there's still a lot of love between them. Oliveri communicates the heartbreak of a mother who is losing her child to AIDS.
For all its virtues, Hussey's play has a couple of clunky elements, mostly having to do with Charlotte, whose encounter with Keith takes up the second act. Karen Usher, who plays Charlotte, is not to blame; she turns in a fine, affecting performance as a 30-something woman who had a brief, unhappy marriage with Keith's brother many years before.
Though she hasn't seen Keith and his mother since then, she discloses within five minutes of her entrance all sorts of intimate, personal information, including her potentially fatal disease. Charlotte's breast cancer and her urge to be so open about it are convenient for dramatic effect, but they stretch credulity.
Charlotte leads the way when the play takes an unfortunate didactic turn, with her and Keith trading self-righteous speeches trashing physicians, the anti-AIDS drug AZT, support groups and other easy targets. In rewrite, Hussey ought to get her characters down off the soapboxes and let them just be.
Director Michael Staczar's production has a solid feel to it. Richard Sharkey's scenic and lighting design is nicely uncluttered. The costumes by Christine Heinen include a memorably gaudy sport coat. Anthony Diaz's wig and makeup design are the stars of the theatrical finale.
AIDS has been the subject of many plays over the last decade, culminating with the current Broadway hit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America by Tony Kushner. Many AIDS plays are powerful theater that also serve a practical purpose. They provide comfort and catharsis to people whose lives have been touched by the disease.
Hussey's play succeeds admirably in that therapeutic respect. But the playwright also transcends her subject matter. The Dressing Room is the real thing, a fully realized little world onstage, populated by characters whom you care about very much.
The play by Susan Hussey with S. Kane is presented by Gorilla Theater Company and Stageworks at Falk Theater. Performances are at 8 tonight and at 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $8 and $12. Call 253-6243.