Laughter as Medicine

The People with AIDS Coalition (PWAC) is known for helping provide counseling, housing, and health care to people infected with HIV. Recently the not-for-profit group, also known for its feisty leadership, has branched out to include a different type of therapy -- comic relief.

Last fall, under the guidance of theatrical director Hal Brooks, PWAC converted an auditorium once used to hold memorial services for clients at its Biscayne Boulevard headquarters into a 90-seat theater and hosted a two-show season, including an uproarious all-male production of Noël Coward's Private Lives that sold out the house.

After a positive critical and community response, the troupe of actors, formerly known as the Ramsay-Hutchison Players in honor of two PWAC founders and now rechristened the Players at PWAC, is poised for a second, more ambitious, season. "We got great coverage last year, and our goal is to continue to produce quality theater," says Players chairman Robert Seplin.

The troupe's success is impressive considering its budget: All props, lighting, and sound equipment were either donated or purchased by the actors themselves. Profits from the shows are given back to PWAC and used to serve the group's more than 1000 active clients.

The Players at PWAC's second season kicks off Friday with South Beach Stories, directed by Brooks. Later shows will include Uncle Bob by actor-writer Austin Pendleton and Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad by Arthur Kopit. The troupe is still seeking original scripts and several more actors for its spring productions, Seplin says.

South Beach Stories was written by and stars Susan Murray, a veteran actress who made her name in Chicago comedy clubs and now spends much of her time teaching acting. The one-woman play combines old characters culled from Murray's Chicago nightclub days with new ones based on the local scene. Among Murray's masks: a bag lady obsessed with door knobs, a gay man who loathed the film Titanic, and a manic-depressive who has an affair with a sufferer of multiple-personality disorder.

Though she aims to make the audience laugh, Murray also hopes the theater will lend her work a poignancy that nightclubs cannot. "The intimate setting will allow the audience to identify with some of the characters," she says.

Murray is also glad to be helping PWAC: "The fact that the profits go for a good cause, that means something."

-- Alan Diaz

South Beach Stories plays at the Terrence Ibbs Auditorium, 3892 Biscayne Blvd, September 18-19 and 25-26, and October 2-4 and 8-10. Performances are at 8:00 p.m. except for Sundays, when curtain rises at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $10 to $20. Call 305-759-5151.