James Vincent Meredith and Mary Beth Fisher star in Roz and Ray, directed by Chay Yew, at Victory Gardens Theater.
James Vincent Meredith and Mary Beth Fisher star in Roz and Ray, directed by Chay Yew, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(photo provided by Victory Gardens Theater)

The ending of the world premiere of Karen Hartman's biomedical drama Roz and Ray at Victory Gardens Theater is surprisingly sentimental. It's an understandable choice; after 90 minutes of tragedies piling up on one another, coupled with the knowledge that these misfortunes really happened to countless families, giving the audience some measure of consolation is necessary. Watching a piece of theater as unyieldingly grim as this one can be an endurance sport, even when performed as capably as it is here.

James Vincent Meredith's Ray is a man eaten alive by worry. He's raising his twin sons alone after the boys' mother split for Hawaii when their sons were diagnosed with hemophilia. When hematologist and oncologist Dr. Roz Kagan (Mary Beth Fisher) offers his children the opportunity for a more normal life, it's like the heavens have opened up for his family. This normal life comes in vials of Factor VIII, a devised blood clotting protein that revolutionized hemophilia treatment in the late 1970s, when the play begins.

Ray's sons thrive for a few years under Dr. Roz's treatment, and, with emotions running high, the two adults begin an ill-advised affair. Even under normal circumstances, such an entanglement would be unwise, but Ray is also a semicloseted gay man. What comes next is inevitable: in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis arrives, and destroys whatever normalcy they've achieved. Roz is concerned about the effects of contaminated blood on Factor VIII before the virus even has a name, let alone a reliable test, but she follows industry protocol and continues treatment of her patients. The worst happens. Nearly all of her pediatric hemophilia patients are infected, including both of Ray's sons. Those who aren't have to return to outdated, ineffective treatment programs.

Fisher and Meredith are both formidable actors, and together they convey suffering, fury, and grief as well as anybody can. Meredith's deep voice is weighed down with decades of anxiety and pain, and Fisher shows the toll of her stress with wonderfully specific physical choices. In the few fleeting moments where hope flutters to the surface, both actors have an easy camaraderie which amplifies the bitterness that later grows between them. This play does not soften its blows, but rather continues hammering them home long after their point is made, with its actors finding nuance in the histrionics.

Director Chay Yew has created an austere, minimalistic production that acts as a fine showcase for his talented cast. The story is told more or less chronologically, framed by Ray's embittered protests outside the children's hospital where Roz works. The time line is conveyed via expository projections of the year, an unfortunate necessity in a production that otherwise speaks for itself.

This play about blood is performed in a pristine, white, nearly empty space, designed by Tim Mackabee. The back wall is stacked with cribs, desks, tricycles, toys, and other relics of lives ended far too soon, all painted white, nearly disappearing altogether. It's certainly evocative. The open expanse of the stage is carefully defined and delineated by Diane D. Fairchild's sharp lighting, especially useful when Ray and Roz are separated in time or space.

Roz and Ray is bleak. It has to be. From 1981 to 1984, an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 hemophiliacs were infected with HIV by contaminated Factor VIII. Their stories are worth telling, even if they're difficult to watch.