People living with AIDS/HIV or any incurable disease must constantly struggle with no-win situations, fear and unpleasant medical issues. Joe Pintauro's 1988 "Raft of the Medusa" is a touching look at the seething anger of a group of people with the AIDS virus, who feel doomed and abandoned as they struggle with daily fears, medical uncertainties and the despair of dying young.
Based on an 1819 painting by Theodore Gericault that depicted desperate people clinging to a raft following a shipwreck, Pintauro's grim analogy of an AIDS support group remains searing and emotionally relevant. Revised by the author, an intimate, powerful production of "Raft of Medusa" by the Barefoot Theatre Company opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre.
The tiny black-box theater puts the audience close to the outbursts of blame, guilt, mistrust, bigotry, anger and despair that reverberate among volatile members of a weekly support group for people living with the virus. While new drugs were being created to treat victims, they were initially too costly for most patients.
Francisco Solorzano skillfully keeps the large cast credibly interacting, as Pintauro's abstraction of scenes range from the unpleasant death of Donald (an ethereal John Gazzale) to an intense group meeting of nine angry patients that includes drug users, ex-cons, a couple of straight women and a possible impostor.
Wrangled by psychiatrist Jerry, (nicely played with low-key sorrow by Gil Ron) and often angrily turning on one another, the patients share their personal stories of how they contracted the virus, the destruction of their personal lives and rage about the unknown and foreshortened future. The entire cast of 11 is equally good, with Jeremy Brena giving a low-key, grounded performance as Vietnam veteran Michael. Other compelling portraits include a spectral-looking Gillian Rougier as deaf-mute drug-addict Nairobi, and Andrew MacLarty is sweetly brave as former model Tommy.
Michael Pierre Louis and Charles Everett each provide potent performances as streetwise men boiling with anger at the unfairness of life. Cora (a tart performance by Samantha Fontana) accurately terms the group "a misogynistic snakepit" when teenage newcomer Felicia (a lovely portrayal of innocence by Maia Sage) arrives. A couple of other new members hiding secrets are enacted with nuance by Mark G. Cisneros and Christopher Whalen.
A shocking act of medical terrorism during the meeting illustrates the deep despair many are living with, though some fiercely cling to hope. As Jimmy furiously demands, "Everybody wants to live. We gotta live. That's what is life. They got to find a cure. They got to help us."
Amid the name-calling and cursing, the group manages to find common ground and black humor in their fearful situation, occasionally comforting one another and sharing a few tender moments of optimism and connection.
In the end, no matter their variety of personal stories, the patients are all in the same boat, while the potential life preservers of new drugs appear out of reach. Pintauro's play is a poignant look at various ways people try to cope with imminent tragedy.