In the Continuum
nytheatre.com review by Lauren Marks
October 5, 2005
Primary Stages is currently hosting In the Continuum, a deeply moving, highly effective exploration of AIDS and its effects on the lives and minds of two women, unknown to each other, a continent apart.
The women initially seem to have little in common. One is an African, a professional TV newscaster, with a family. The other is a young girl from South Central Los Angeles who has been kicked out of her mother's house and sneaks to clubs to see her boyfriend, a rising basketball star. Not long into the play we realize their similarity, at the same time that it is revealed to them: they are both pregnant and HIV-positive.
Playwrights Dania Gurira and Nikole Salter play all the roles. As authors their work is impressive, but as actresses it is staggering. Each character emerges quickly and beautifully, developed with a very simple costume adjustment, and equipped with a completely new personality. The characters are never confusable, and are always useful in bringing flesh to the worlds of the two women whose lives we are observing in the midst of their disruption.
Director Robert O'Hara does a phenomenal job of letting this play have a life of its own. The design is sparse and exquisite. It is almost easy to take for granted because of how well it serves the play without asserting itself. Especially artful work is displayed by costume designer Sarah Hillard and lighting designer Jim French.
Since AIDS is affecting African women and women of African descent faster than any other population in the world, this play is essential in confronting the stereotypes and silences that make AIDS continue to seem impossible to those who aren't already facing it. When one of the characters is told she has AIDS, she responds, lashing out in disbelief, "Do I look like a junkie? Do I look like I'm gay? Do I look like I'm from Africa?"
There is a constancy in the delicate balance at work here. One moment there is terror from the mother in Zimbabwe, pregnant again, who has just learned that she is HIV-positive; the next complete joy and relief when she receives an innocuous but emotionally life-saving call from her small son. And then there is another quick switch—while she's still on her cell phone, she humorously threatens the invisible beggar children flocking around her, "to beat you like your mother should have done." Almost immediately after, an unmistakable look crosses her face, as she realizes these children are almost certainly AIDS orphans.
It is quite significant that this play chooses to focus on women who are simultaneously pregnant and diseased. It faces the most fundamentally disturbing and confusing aspect of the disease—that sex, an act of love, can kill as easily as it can create. The body seems to have no trouble with the perverse illogic, which makes deadly an act that is physically and emotionally the direct opposite of dying. The mind is not so easily placated. It rages against the thought of disease, screaming "How? HOW?!" while the body seems content enough to relinquish its control without much to-do.
There is a moving scene in which a maid, cleaning the floor of the newswoman, looks up to speak, presumably at her, but directly at the audience. She explains that she has little family left, so and so died in '98, '99, 2001. She says, with contented yet heartbreaking enthusiasm, that she doesn't want a husband. She says how much she admires the life the journalist has, and—not knowing her employer has just received news of her HIV status—concludes smilingly, "Love between a man and a woman seems to end in death around here."
The play deftly deals with the questions all people have about death and dying. How can my life end with something so unrelated, so unwelcome, so random? All death seems strange and unfair, unthinkable to the living. Even a veteran smoker who finds himself dying of lung cancer thinks, "Why me?" But, there is something that this play captures eloquently, something particular about AIDS—that it comes insidiously attached to love, like a possible side effect listed on a bottle of prescription medication.
This play bravely looks into the abyss which awaits any person forced to confront their own mortality—a vastness which contains faith and despair, love and fear. It manages to maintain humor even in its darkest moments, and grasps fervently to hope, with sweaty hands, but with white knuckles. This play is generous without being saccharine, kind without being false, and realistic without being pessimistic, It does what only a rare play can do—reminds the heart that it is a malleable material, which is better served the more moveable it is.