Love! Valour! Compassion!
But his Tony Award winning, slice-of-life story fills the theater with the deeply galvanizing power of the AIDS crisiswhile also turning a light on the inner workings of all kinds of gay relationships, including a few very adult themes (and some very childish ones too) set in that stark frame of life and death in 1994.
And it's not just "gay theater for straight people," or "old gay theater for young gay audiences." It rises up beautifully from its own pile of ashes to become classic story-telling.
There are no dramatic political statements or desperate laboratory scenes, under the excellent direction of Gary F. Bell. But there is plenty of drama in this three-act play, as things develop naturally, and breathlessly.
In this particular endurance race (in the three years before the development of protease inhibitors), two of the eight characters on stage are going through an imminent collapse, and they strain to keep going like runners on a marathon. Still they're caught; and still they're running like mad: counting off the usual flip remarks and all the obligatory gay iconography as fast as they can, like beads on a rosary. Meanwhile, what's happening to them all in this moment will change the world.
And though there was still no respite from a very personal sort of terror, most of the characters here manage to develop restorative, irascible, ridiculous and unbreakable friendships, in this one particular summer. The intensity of it makes up for any years that may be lost, and that's probably what makes it such a great experience.
Zachary Stefaniak gives one of the best performances of the night, as the host of these three weekends one summer: love, hatred, violence and tears are his before it's all over. David Wassilak, in a dual role, is about 1,000 times more touching than I've ever seen him before. There should have been a loud ovation the night I saw him play a scene with himself, as two twin brothers, but it seemed like no one wanted to stop and break the spell.
Chris Tipp looks fantastic as the male temptress (Ramon), and acts terrifically too. Stephen Peirick has a great 1,000 mile stare, as the long summer draws to a close, and many difficult moments have finally passed; and Jonathan Hey summons up great gay indignation for a particularly unpleasant houseguest.
Zach Wachter is splendid as the sort of innocent child of the group, and Patrick Kelly just gets funnier and more touching every minute as the evening goes on. All of them end up grasping for reasons to stay together (it's still a long time before any gay couple would ever think of "staying together for the children," after all) or for ways of overcoming personal failure or defeat. And the private debates over gay relationships are more personally cataclysmic than anything you might see in the news today.
Nowadays, straight people like to pat themselves on the back for "how far" the gay rights movement has come "so fast." But this play occupies those nightmarish (and strangely idyllic) middle-ages in the modern gay rights movement: set in a hopeless time of being held up as objects of scorn, for political gainlike some domestic population of haughty, cartoonishly-imagined Frenchmen. They may have turned their backs on that scorn for three weekends one summer, but can't fully divorce themselves from the consequences of being hated (in some cases) quite literally to death. And still, in the world of Love! Valour! Compassion!, they manage to find hope.
It's a beautifully immersive tale of what it was like before we all came "so far, so fast."
Through June 28, 2014, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance)