Odysseus Died from AIDS
nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 15, 2004
AIDS is so terrible and the ravages it visits upon the body so incomprehensible, that it’s wholly understandable that artists would be tempted to clean it up a little for public consumption: Show too much and the artist risks being accused of exploitation; show nothing and the artist is telling a lie. Stephen J. Svoboda valiantly struggles with this task in his play Odysseus Died fromAIDS. That the virus ultimately gets the best of him is yet one more reminder that, twenty-plus years into the epidemic, the reality of AIDS can still do an end run around our best attempts to turn it into art.
Elliot Hayes (John Bixler), once a promising literature student at Columbia University, was diagnosed with HIV, and in a panic, left school and moved back in with his domineering mother, Margaret (Ariana Shore). Now ten years later he has suddenly begun to exhibit signs of brain damage. He obsessively writes down every word he hears, and his speech has become afflicted with a type of aphasia. The diagnosis: a brain lesion, giving him just a short time to live. He is admitted to the hospital and quickly becomes part of the community of AIDS patients who live there full-time.
Another effect of the lesion, however, is to make him impulsive. So now, after a lifetime of careful behavior, he begins to act out in ways he never would have before. He courts the cute boy (Adam Perabo) dying in a near-by room, and he conspires with this mother to break the hospital rules so that he can give one of his fellow patients, Maha (Maha McCain), a trip to McDonald’s on her birthday. Paralleling all of this is Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. Elliot is the Greek hero, and his mother, fellow patients, and healthcare providers take turns filling the roles of his crew and the gods and monsters they encounter.
Svoboda, unfortunately, falls down on two fronts. First, it’s hard to swallow the given circumstances of the world he’s created. Because no one in the play actually appears ill or debilitated, and they all seem to have free run of the hospital, one can’t understand why they haven’t all been discharged. Secondly, and more importantly, Odysseus is the ultimate survivor. Elliot’s mission, as we’re told several times, is to lead his “crew” to death. The wily Greek of legend would have been perplexed by this submission to fate.
Still, as a director Svoboda gets some lovely performances out of his cast, most notably Perabo, McCain, and Brett Friedman, as a straight guy slowly going blind and in denial about his condition. At the end, when the entire cast assembles in white to sail off into the unknown on a hospital bed, it would take a heart far more calcified than mine not to be moved.