Close Call Theatre

at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, Baird Hall

Billed as a “heartwarming story about the AIDS quilt and AIDS survivors,” In Stitches betrays itself immediately with its cutesy, made-for-TV title, promising a cheery panacea for bereavement in the form of sampler wisdom and weary repartee delivered by a group of grieving loved ones.

This group consists of Mona, a young mother who has lost her baby boy; Rosemary and Hal, who have lost their gay son Clifford; and Clifford’s lover, Max. They have been brought together to sew panels for the AIDS quilt by Felicia, an activist who lost her younger brother first to drugs, then to AIDS. They gather in the basement of Mrs. Cavendish, a salty old widow who pops her head in from time to time to deliver a bit of irascible advice in vulgar language–the old are so cute when they’re irreverent. She is the smartest of them all: early in the play she mutters, “I know how this movie ends,” and heads upstairs to watch The Price Is Right. Would that the audience could have joined her.

It must have been written with the best of intentions, but Brian Christopher Williams’s play is formulaic and simpleminded. We all know how this movie ends, and its examination of grief and guilt probes no deeper than a pamphlet you might pick up in a clinic waiting room.

Mona (Susan Frampton) is a wide-eyed muffin secretly humiliated that her sweet toddler could have come down with a disease as vile as AIDS. Once she admits to this and cries over the panel she’s embroidering, it’s clear that she’s on the path to recovery–from grief if not empty-headedness. Hal and Rosemary’s marriage is collapsing; Hal (Michael Kingston) is a nice guy who must cope not only with his son’s death but with his wife’s shrewish embitterment. Rosemary (Carolyn McCusker) blames Max for her son’s life-style and demise, and out of loyalty to Clifford’s memory Max puts up with her abuse. Felicia (Mary Iandola) speaks in the earnest, trained tones of an Amway saleswoman, informing the group at large that “it doesn’t matter which road you take, as long as you find your way” and “sometimes you have to free up your arms in order to embrace other things.” She refers to Mona’s panel as “a piece of Americana–a tribute to humanity, a tribute to love.”

Never mind that the actors stumbling through this production tend to crumple, sit on, and tread underfoot their quilt panels as if they were so many pieces of used paper towel. Director Lisa L. Abbott allows this sort of amateurish sloppiness as well as a good deal of forced emotion, ranging from soap-opera pathos to the unintentionally comic. When Hal finally breaks down and admits that he can’t seem to feel anything anymore, he begs Rosemary to slap him. Rosemary–willing enough to do damage with words–is reluctant, so Hal slaps himself. Several times. It’s a moment painfully balanced between embarrassment and hilarity, as all the other actors onstage react as though Hal were grinding a lit cigarette into his eye.

The most intriguing aspect of the play is its streak of Catholic mysticism–Madonna and child images abound, and Felicia is presumed to be pregnant even though she protests that, given her love life, that would be impossible. This leads to a long discussion about the Immaculate Conception and the common misconception that there was only one of them, when in fact the Virgin herself was born immaculately so as to be a pure vessel for Christ. Felicia is a perfect Madonna figure: selfless, primarily sexless, and suffering the loss of a young man she raised from a boy but who was not really hers.

Max, meanwhile, intends to go to Croatia to talk to the children who claim to be in communication with the Virgin. He’s in a good position to accept this sort of miracle because he himself is in communication with his lover’s ghost. In fact, the ghost of Clifford puts an end to all the breast-beating and finger pointing by appearing in Mrs. Cavendish’s basement and instructing his parents to “remember the ones who are gone but love the ones that are left,” proving once and for all that death does nothing to improve a fellow’s turn of phrase. Mrs. Cavendish follows this up by reflecting on her own near-death experience, when she was met by departed friends and felt overwhelmed by love.

There is no room in this play for any afterlife but a warm and fuzzy one, a place where hemophiliac babies float happily alongside gentle gay lovers and intravenous drug users; that place is an answer as simple and comforting as a quilt on a cold day. But from what I understand the AIDS quilt is neither simple nor completely comforting–it’s an awe-inspiring, rather dreadful monument to the lives AIDS has claimed. In Stitches settles for easy solutions–a good cry makes all the difference in the world to its grieving characters. For those of us who do not believe in or refuse to settle for “heartwarming” rationalization, In Stitches is a little less appetizing than a bowl of warm pabulum, and about as dramatic.