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A young man lies inert on a bed, an IV drip his last tether to the world.

Periodically, a few curious words emerge from him, confusing his family members and his boyfriend, who have gathered for the long goodbye.

From this simple setup, Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor addresses familiar themes in "The Soldier Dreams," a late-1990s work being given its Baltimore premiere in a mostly effective production by Iron Crow Theatre.

The play does its work in a span of only about 75 minutes. A little more time might actually have been a good thing, given the sketchiness of some details.

The central character of the dying David, for example, doesn't emerge with much depth; repeatedly hearing that ...

he loved dancing and had cute uses for sign language goes only so far in defining his personality.

But MacIvor, who won Canada's biggest theater award, the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize, a few years ago, has a painter's touch. He makes almost each verbal brush stroke here count for something and, by the end of the play, he succeeds in creating an effective, sometimes affecting portrait of family and loss. He also is adept at the humorous jab, the kind where most of us can recognize ourselves as the target.

The undercoating is unstated, but unmistakable: David's fatal illness is AIDS. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "The Soldier Dreams" is the way MacIvor keeps that issue from looming over everything else.

The play isn't concerned so much with how or why the popular David is slipping away well before his time, but how and why those closest to him respond to the fact.

Old sibling rivalries flare up. The lover resents or suspects the other mourners. An in-law who doesn't quite fit in tries hard to show how much he cares. A nurse patiently navigates through the tension in the room to do her work.

The universality of all this goes without saying, and, at its best, the Iron Crow staging at Theatre Project captures the elements in the play that can speak to anyone who has had to keep a death watch (or fears one).

What adds crucial spice to the scenario is the revelation that David, who was in an open relationship, had a brief encounter while in Ottawa for his older sister's wedding, an encounter no one else knows about.

The memory of meeting a German medical student -- the mysterious words from the deathbed all relate to this -- is what replays in David's mind. The highest sensual and emotional peak for David? The night he was infected? Perhaps both.

Cleary, David is the one handling death more calmly than those around him. Unlike them, he is long past the mundane and petty. If he still had his faculties, he'd obviously tell everyone to get along and get over it.

Directed by Steven J. Satta-Fleming, the action unfolds simply, maybe too simply, on Daniel Ettinger's spare set. All the standing around the bed (the sole prop) and all the exits-in-a-huff through a black curtain upstage leave something to be desired.

As Tish, David's older and colder sister, anxious to assert authority and claim the role of chief mourner, Marsha Becker does admirable work, especially in the break-the-fourth-wall monologues (the play is heavily dependent on this worn device). She makes telling points just by the way she handles her reading glasses in a scene when Tish tries to introduce a slide show about her brother.

Steve Sawicki impressively gets to the genuine heart of Tish's nerdy husband Sam, who jots down pathetic haiku and worries constantly about being PC. Karin Crighton is on target as David's kid sister Judy. Joseph Ritsch gives a rather stiff, one-note performance as Richard, David's lover.

While Alec Weinberg lies in a very convincing catatonic state on the bed, Paul Wissman portrays David for the memory scenes, and does so with nuance and charm. Too bad he looks so awkward (most actors would) in the inevitable, regrettable dancing finale, which slathers a dollop of kitsch into the proceedings.

Rich Buchanan brings a subtle sensuality to the role of the German student, who provides the multi-faceted key to the play when he tells David: "Even when the soldier dreams, the war goes on around him." Sarah Lynn Taylor ably rounds out the cast as the level-headed nurse.

Michael Perrie's original music, which has an appropriate hint of Bach chorales, adds a nice touch.

Performances continue through April 21.


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