As its title implies, “Roz and Ray” is the catalogue of a singular long-term relationship, in this case one thrown into turmoil by complicated feelings, crossed signals and a traumatic death: the story of a doctor and the parent whose child dies under her care.
Susan Rome is the doctor and Tom Story the father in this finely handled production at Theater J that has been sensitively guided by director Adam Immerwahr. Without ever resorting to histrionics — and you can see how the rhythms of Karen Hartman’s play could be disrupted by showy fireworks — Rome and Story adroitly reveal the powerful emotions unleashed and the intimacies triggered as Roz and Ray fumble their way through the progress of a killing disease.
The illness is AIDS, which to different life-threatening degrees afflicts the hemophiliac twin sons of single parent Ray. Taking place between 1976 and 1987, “Roz and Ray” traces the savage attack AIDS waged on hemophiliacs, whose survival depended on donated blood that provided the clotting factor their bodies lacked. A blood supply tainted with HIV killed thousands of people with hemophilia in the early years of the epidemic, before tests were in place to screen for it.
As much as “Roz and Ray” documents the bond that forms over the years between the hematologist and the father, it also unfolds around a chasm. Ray is a man who is stretched to the limits of his tolerance for expert advice, and his understanding of how much medical science can do; he invests too much faith in the kind and caring Roz. And when at last she demonstrates, as she must, that she’s no miracle worker, the father’s reaction is not just grief, but a rage that manifests itself in an act of pure paranoia.
The playwright trips up only when, after the compelling connection she builds between Roz and Ray — one that includes an ambiguous attraction resulting from anguish and loneliness and maybe even cold calculation — she concocts a scene that ignites a confrontation better suited to daytime drama than this subtler theatrical form.
Even so, “Roz and Ray” performs multiple valuable functions. On the minimalist set Debra Booth designs for the stage of the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, Hartman lays out in accessible and compassionate fashion the missteps of the medical profession, as hemophiliacs began dying along with gay men and others stricken by the disease. Hers is not an indictment of medical malfeasance, it seems, as much as an account of the cascade of institutional errors that led doctors in failing directions before they found the right one.
Immerwahr elicits performances of persuasive rawness from both of his actors. Rome adroitly conveys Roz’s commendable attempts at maintaining a professional facade, as well as the emotional needs that lead her close to ethical transgression. And Story, in a remarkably contained way, embodies the tragedy of Ray, an ordinary man caught in an eddy of despair, who, looking for someone to blame for a loss he cannot cope with, turns on the one person who stuck by him.
Roz and Ray, by Karen Hartman, directed by Adam Immerwahr. Set, Debra Booth; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, Nancy Schertler; sound, Karin Graybash; projections, Alexandra Kelly Colburn; production stage manager, Karen Currie. About 90 minutes. $24-$69. Through April 29 at Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. theaterj.org or 202-777-3210.