Scripter Terri Sissman offers a compelling journey through the unlikely relationship of emotionally reticent Margaret (Leslie Upson), a retired banker-turned-AIDS hospice volunteer, and colorfully misanthropic Jeffrey (Terry Ray), a gay man dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis. Sissman enlivens this pas de deux with useful supporting characters and illuminating flashbacks but quite correctly focuses most of the action on the achingly poignant tribulations these two needy souls suffer on their slow voyage to mutual acceptance. “Throwing Rubies” is enhanced by the intuitive guidance of helmer Sue Hamilton and dead-on perfs by Upson and Ray.
Set in 1986, primarily in Jeffrey’s Los Angeles apartment, with flashbacks to a state-run TB sanatorium in the early 1940s, this legiter takes its title from the euphemistic naming of the blood clots coughed up by TB patients when their condition deteriorates to terminal. Upson creates an endearing portrait of life-wounded Margaret, who is striving to keep her composure as she doggedly attempts to assist emotionally abusive Jeffrey despite the painful memories his condition evokes of her own TB-racked teen years in a sanatorium.
Ray’s deceptively malevolent Jeffrey drives the action forward. Thesp’s flamboyant Jeffrey insidiously burrows through Margaret’s psyche, attempting to unveil the real person he knows is hiding beneath her diffident facade. When she does reveal the incident in her past that has both haunted and crippled her life, Jeffrey betrays her. Yet it’s quite evident, as realized by Ray and Upson, that Jeffrey and Margaret desperately need each other.
Offering necessary intrusions into the action are Jeffrey’s oft-maligned lover, Tubs; (Jim Braswell), Jeffrey’s AIDS case worker, Katherine (Susan Damante); and good-natured male nurse Neal (Ron Gordon). Sissman judiciously utilizes these well-realized characters to demonstrate the emotional dynamics of those involved in Jeffrey’s life and impending death.
Counterbalancing Margaret’s life with Jeffrey are her memories of the sanatorium as her teenage persona Peg (Iris Gilad) escapes the relentless boredom of her condition by losing herself in her friendship with fellow teenage patient Beth (Mylika Davis), despite the Ratched-like policing of Nurse James (Ellen D. Williams). Gilad and Davis impress as they project the passions and insecurities of adolescents both confused and excited about their emerging sexuality.
Hamilton never allows the emotional throughline to falter, even during the many scene changes. The smooth, choreographed flow between Jeffrey’s world and the sterile environment of the sanatorium is particularly effective despite the underwhelming sets of Lisa D. Lechuga. The live, impressionistic keyboard work of Ryan Tanaka supplies mood-enhancing underscoring.