1/14/2021 MEMORIAL DAY Theatrical Outfit’s Unexpected Play Festival / Working Title Playwrights
A DIFFERENT SORT OF DEATH
(Work in Progress Alert: The Unexpected Play Festival features new plays from Atlanta writers given professional readings in a workshop situation.)
(Bias Alert: Over the past weeks, I have become Zoom-friends with actor Robert Wayne, and have always viewed his work through approval-tinted glasses.)
My 2020 review file was bookended by two plays dealing with AIDS and its effects on families and care providers (We are a Masterpiece and Love, M.) 2021 is following form, with my initial column being on Paul Donnelly’s moving Memorial Day, a look at the 1990’s height of the AIDS pandemic.
In a Prologue-Monologue, today’s Nate brings us to the beach house in Rehoboth Beach DE where he first met his husband. Nate has been living with AIDS since the early ‘90’s and has just lost his husband to a sudden aneurysm. He warns us that this will not be a “meet cute” story, and, indeed, it is not.
As the prologue ends, we are swept back 30 (ish) years to a weekend-on-the-beach getaway. The house is owned by partners George and Martin. George has suffered a broken ankle and hobbles about on a leg cast while Martin kvetches about all the “cooking equipment” George insisted on bringing (“No one needs a cappuccino machine at the beach.” George respectfully disagrees.)
Their guests are an old friend, Joe, who is bringing the new man in his life, the much younger Nate. The two shared a grief counselling group, both having lost significant others to AIDS. George and Martin ruefully anticipate a weekend of high drama, which is pretty much how Joe tackles life.
Unknown to all except George, another guest crashes the party, Terrence “Evelyn” O’Brien, an old-school Cole-Porter-singing drag queen who was an ex-lover of George. The problem is that Evelyn died in the early days of the pandemic. Is she a manifestation of George’s injury-clouded mind, or is she a blithe spirit on a mission?
This script is a terrific tapestry of sharp characters and incisive dialogue, of legitimate rom-com humor and devastating grief and depression, of strident rhetoric and rueful reminders of the true cost of pandemics ignored by our nation’s leaders (“You can thank everyone who voted for Ronald Reagan for the last ten years of deaths”). There are heroes and villains, arguments and celebrations, in short, the full panoply of what it meant to be human and gay at a time when being closeted was a survival choice and homophobic parents trumped any “partner rights.” It was a time of a “different kind of death,” the kind that remains shamefully hidden by parents more concerned about their peers’ good will than their own sons.
And it is a most moving, most compelling work that hopefully will be on its feet on a stage before too many more people have died.
There are so many motifs that Mr. Donnelly explores here – the emotional toll on caregivers who can do little more that watch friends disappear, the hard choices made by caregivers who help the suffering ease out of life (and the stern judgment of others who insist doctors “do no harm” – along with the struggle to decide if “harm” is a fast and easy death or an insistence on living in pain and indignity), the cruel randomness of who lives and who dies, the blind ignorance of bureaucratic care center managers, the sheer panic of what happens “when the condom breaks” (a singularly complex scene that is simultaneously funny, terrifying, and angry), the need for a sick young man to find someone who will be with him “at the end,” the sheer cruelty of a parent who has disowned his son but insists on taking ownership of his home (not caring that his partner of eight years is made irrelevant by death), the casual litany of lost friends (a reading of the backed-up mail includes many Chinese Restaurant menus, many Real Estate ads, and many many memorial notices).
I really appreciated the structure of the play, with Nate’s opening monologue telling us that, even though he is the sickest of the characters, he will survive to enjoy a legal marriage to his partner, and to mourn his eventual non-AIDS passing, I would have appreciated a return to the present-day Nate to close the play, rather than the rather dry vignette of the father locked out of the beach house, which, to my eyes, fell completely flat and gave the “villain” of the piece the “last word,” as it were. But this is a work in progress, and to be honest, I’m not sure what today’s Nate could say that would make a satisfying ending. Maybe an ironic aside that the character in the condom-breaking scene survived only to eventually die of COVID.
Theatrical Outfit and director David Crowe have assembled a dynamite cast who give performances that seem more on-its-feet ready-for-prime-time than dry reading. Lee Osorio is terrific as George, displaying so many layers of emotion, so may thoughts unspoken, so many secrets gnawing away. In contrast, Terry Guest is a joyfully flamboyant Evelyn, finding music and humor in an afterlife that is all-too imminent for the young men of the time. Ben Thorpe is fresh-faced, almost innocent, as Nate, extraordinarily likeable, winning over the skeptical older men before they’ve even unpacked. It’s easy to see how and why he became life-long friends with (some of) them. Markell Williams is great as Joe and David Rossetti is an appealing Martin. More to the point, all these actors are a textbook ensemble, finding happiness in just being together, experiencing the myriad “currents” that characterize friendships, both old and new,
And, as the father, a southern senator nicknamed “Scooter,” Robert Wayne is an unapologetic homophobe on a single-minded mission to erase his son’s “shame” from his life. He “lost his son” once (when he came “out”) but will not brook any attempt to steal him “from the family” after death.
The entire production used Zoom extraordinarily well, with actors’ home backdrops appropriate for beach house rooms, and wardrobes revealing style and character. Credit needs to go to Stage Manager Courtney Greever-Fries for “wrangling” the various Zoom feeds and keeping the pace tightly edited and effective.
Since last fall, Theatrical Outfit has been blazing the trail for bringing new works to us, and I look forward with delight to the remaining shows of this Unexpected Play Series (Erin Considine’s Raising the Dead on January 21 and Sonhara Eastman’s Pearl on January 28). These readings are free, but you need to register in advance (See link below). The readings are proving popular (almost 200 participants in each of the first two), and I cannot recommend highly enough that you join the viewing party and the post-show discussions.
Memorial Day is a strong play, an effective look at the early nineties. Its first draft was actually written then in tribute to a friend of Mr. Donnelly. The friend succumbed to AIDS and the play was “put in the drawer” until recently, when current events made it uncomfortably relevant. Yes, families today are (a bit) more accepting than then, marriage laws have “declawed” most of the “Scooters” of the world, but there is still a ways to go to Make America Honest Again.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #MemorialDay #UnexpectedPlayFestival #Theatrical Outfit #WorkingTilePlaywrighd)