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Of Lice and Men

In the midst of life, we are in death.

-The Book of Common Prayer

"Science has discovered . . . a serum that will stop the Swath of Death and save the lives of thousands. Los Angeles calls for help and in less than 36 hours the vials of serum were brought to the front lines where the battle is on against the Terror."

This breathless dispatch was published in 1924 by a Philadelphia laboratory, answering a call, put out by the superintendent of the Los Angeles County General Hospital, for a plague serum. On October 1, a 50-year-old Mexican national named Jose Lucero - living on Clara Street, walking distance from Union Station - fell ill and was misdiagnosed as having venereal disease. Although he recovered, his 4-year-old daughter was dead four days later from what was described as "lobar pneumonia." She was actually a victim of bubonic plague, in what was the last urban outbreak of the disease in America (although as recently as 1978, a boy in New Mexico contracted the plague after skinning a coyote he found belly-up in the desert).

L.A. was as much infected by plague politics as it was by the disease itself. By Halloween of 1924, while The New York Times and the Washington Post reported accurately on the outbreak that would eventually claim 36 deaths from 41 reported cases of bubonic and pneumonic plague, our local press was discreetly muttering about a "strange malady," sometimes calling it "virulent" or "malignant" pneumonia. And, of course, copies of The New York Times were awfully hard to come by in 1924 Los Angeles.

The reason for all the hush-hush can be inferred from the actions of local officials, who concentrated their campaign against urban rats - the infection's source - in the harbor area of the South Bay, rather than in the already quarantined downtown Macy Street district, 30 miles away, where dozens of people were actually dying. (Not until year's end, when the epidemic had waned, was the first infected rat discovered, on a hog farm some four miles from San Pedro.)

The terror, it seems, was not so much of the plague, but of the U.S. surgeon general's threat to quarantine the Port of Los Angeles and thus torpedo business throughout Southern California - a threat made good in December 1924, to the profound chagrin of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce.

The death toll of 36 from the L.A. plague is a far cry from the 100,000 or so Londoners swept away in the Great Plague of 1665, whose corpses were flung en masse into pits so crowded they rise above the ground to this day. In her 1995 drama, One Flea Spare, Kentucky poet and playwright Naomi Wallace writes about the lives of four people quarantined together in a Westminster, England, home for 28 days of that awful year. But in Bart DeLorenzo's staging for Evidence Room at Culver City's Ivy Substation, we don't feel the scale of the horror as much as we do its intensity. With a change of costumes and dialects, this could be a story of Los Angeles in 1924 - or, for that matter, in 2004, if our public-health services continue their slide.

One Flea Spare is not an easy play to absorb. No play about decay of the body, and the body politic, can be easy. It is, however, beautiful, with an impact that gently evolves through an accumulation of striking images. Tom Fitzpatrick and Pamela Gordon portray William and Darcy Snelgrave, a wealthy married couple barricaded in their home after one of their servants dies there. While Fitzpatrick, with head alternately wigged and shaved, deftly nudges Snelgrave's foppery into caricature - as when he shows off how to prance with a walking stick - Gordon offsets these eccentricities with an oddly intoxicating restraint, in a performance that occurs between the lines, in averted glances. She is among the best character actors around, with her waiflike figure, her impish sense of humor and her voice more of gravel than air.

To say the Snelgraves' marriage has gone barren would be putting it mildly; he hasn't touched her since she was 17, and she's no spring chicken. This distance has led her into a muted rage against her husband that becomes evident - slowly - only after the somewhat enigmatic appearance in the home of two tattered wanderers: a dashing sailor called Bunce (Christian Leffler) with a festering stab wound, and a 12-year-old parlor maid who doubles as narrator (Ames Ingham). Their communal quarantine is administered by a cockney guard (Peter Carlin) who patrols the "streets" below the platform stage, boards up the windows of the sick house and offers the girl sweets - and the promise of freedom - in exchange for small favors (such as the right to suck her toes). This is a hostage drama- cum-death watch, during which unfolds a social revolution in miniature and metaphor, entailing an exchange of roles and of costumes.

The production, which marks Evidence Room's return from eight months of limbo, is perhaps the most cogent and intelligent work the company has done. Rather than strain to be clever, it just is clever, in the way it supports a clever play without gimmickry. The drama is driven less by a plot than by a series of revelations. A less assured director would have pushed the pace to compensate for the absence of a central action. DeLorenzo, however, trusts the play's words, its images and - most important - his actors. The attraction between Bunce and Lady Snelgrave, for instance, emerges through a network of subtle gestures, of glimpses both offered and withdrawn, a body language that serves chiefly to buttress Wallace's words. This takes time, and DeLorenzo doesn't stint. The result is measured rather than sluggish.

This is also a visceral production. One can almost smell the urine that's been sitting around the house for days, in jars, and the stench of the leeched "tokens" - swellings on the legs and groin - that are the most evident symptom of the plague's onset. This kind of texture can't be rushed. It takes time both to create and to receive it. Scene transitions are punctuated by John Zalewski's sound effects - the tearing of a garment, the galloping of horses - which supplement motifs from the play and are employed with perfect discretion.

Curiously, Wallace speaks of having used L.A. as the lightning rod for her play. She tells, in a program note, how she was reading Daniel DeFoe's Journal of the Plague Year when the 1992 riots broke out in Los Angeles, how she made an instant connection between 17th-century London and contemporary L.A., as though the riot and the plague were "the same event . . . a time when rich and poor get thrown together."

This observation is quite lyrical, but not altogether true. I don't, for example, recall any Bel Air socialites being forced to spend the night with Bell Gardens rappers because of the curfew. The rich and the poor thrown together? I don't think so.

Though Wallace traps the wealthy Snelgraves in a cell with their impoverished visitors, when the death chimes started to toll in the summer of 1665, the rich moved posthaste out of London to safety, led by the president of the College of Physicians (so much for social services) and followed shortly thereafter by King Charles II himself. That left a few brave apothecaries and doctors to care for the stricken and the vulnerable.

All this comes through in Wallace's play, which fascinates not just at the level of morbid curiosity. The drama speaks of the political fallout from any great civic trauma - from an AIDS epidemic, say, or from some long-imagined, devastating "Big One." This, of course, counts as a testament to the power of her poetry.