1/24/2020 WE ARE A MASTERPIECE Out of Box Theatre
(Bias Alert: I have often worked with Out of Box Theatre – and hopefully will do so again one day – and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses. I am also friends with several cast members here.)
Susan Sontag, in her book Illness as Metaphor, wrote: "Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning".
And thus, for a time, there was GRID, “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.” It was used to describe a (mostly fatal) disease that seemed to single out young gay men. It also gave doctors and politicians a convenient term for marginalizing its victims, for justifying a “they earned this” mindset that put real brakes on real efforts to find a cause and a solution.
Gina Femia’s We Are a Masterpiece is a play set at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, late 1982 through early 1983. Yes, AIDS was a term in use at the time, (it was first used by the CDC in September of 1982), but we are in Kalamazoo MI, far from the centers of “gay culture” as described by those not a part of it. So, here, it is still GRID, that disease THOSE people get.
We meet Ryan, an aging gay man in contemporary America, who tells us he “won” the AIDS lottery, that he was never infected. So he takes us back to Kalamazoo at the end of 1982. We meet Joan, a head nurse at a local hospital
and her world is about to turn upside down. Ryan’s “longtime companion” (Greg) is her patient, and she has to stand helplessly by as he succumbs to an illness she can’ define or diagnose or treat.
We also meet John and Charles, “longtime companions” who are friends of Ryan and Greg, who, we may safely assume, will soon be dealing with the politics and unknowns of GRID. John is an artist of abstract images that he himself cannot describe until they are completed, ever in search of that elusive “masterpiece.”
Alone among her colleagues (well, the eccentric janitor Tom shares her concern and affection for the patients), Joan is willing to do whatever it takes to help her patients. Even to the point of allowing them space in her expansive back yard for box-of-ashes burials, cremation at the time required for anyone with GRID.
Along the way we see all the outrageous prejudices faced by men who are, let’s be frank, also dying: mothers who shun their sons, nurses who provide only the coldest of care, priests who are good at using biblical rules as weapons.
And we see Joan and Tom, lone beacons of care and concern, masterpieces of a New Testament theology, as they provide that universal comfort – a friendly and loving touch.
Yes, there have been many plays and movies about AIDS, even about the dawn of the AIDS crisis, one of my favorites being the 1989 movie Longtime Companion, which won Bruce Davison a Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win. Like that movie, We Are a Masterpiece perfectly captures the mix of politics, religion, friendship, love, grief, and medicine, perfectly captures the panics and fears and resignations of the afflicted (and their loved ones). Like that movie, it provides an emotional gut-punch; it left me weeping.
Let’s talk about this cast. Yes, Carolyn Choe (Joan) is a very close friend, so I am legitimately biased, but she is bedrock here. She anchors this play with an unwavering, never-in-doubt commitment to her patients, to the doomed men she brings into her heart, and, eventually, her home. Davin Allen Grindstaff gives us a layered Ryan, full of the mannerisms one character describes as “faggy” (a word I hate and only perpetuate here in the vain hopes it will soon die completely), but is also full of grief, “survivor’s guilt,” and an unconditional love of art. Bob Smith gives us an eccentric Tom, a source for a lot of welcome humor even as he epitomizes another reason for discrimination and rampant judgmentalism. As the doomed men, Zachary Stolz (John), Evan Vihlen (Charles), Connor Sofia (Greg), and Stuart Schleuse (Gerald, whose entire role is a rapturously sublime rendition of “Ave Maria”) create diverse and detailed characters swept up in a story beyond their control. As the “villains,” Amanda Cucher and Parris Sarter are nurses who probably are emotionally unfit for nursing, Emily Kalat is an old church colleague who eventually provides a modicum of respect for Joan’s choices, and Zip Rampy is her priestly brother who never provides an ounce of respect. Filling out the cast is Lily Kerrigan as Joan’s teenage daughter, Lisa, an aspiring police officer struggling to understand her mother even as she rebels with all the teenage anger she can muster.
Director and Production Designer Dominic D’Andrea provides us an intimate space soothingly sky-blue, bleeding into the center aisle, forcing us to look these characters in the eyes and daring us to judge their choices. Lighting designer Nina Gooch utilizes the minimal resources to maximal effect, and sound designer Amy Levin gives us a nice balance of early 80’s pre-show hits and evocative transition melodies. This is indeed a production that looks and sounds terrific.
We are a Masterpiece is a play that covers some familiar history and some familiar themes. But it gives us some characters who are truly original, and a story that is touching, affecting, and compelling.
noun: masterpiece; plural noun: masterpieces
a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship.
a piece of work by a craftsman accepted as qualification for membership of a guild as an acknowledged master.
This play is indeed a Masterpiece, this production is indeed a Masterpiece, these characters are indeed Masterpieces, each and every one.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #oobMasterpiece)