Bailiwick Repertory

A national crisis fully registers only when it strikes family and friends, and that makes it easier for a playwright to handle dramatically. Though AIDS and homophobia are the targets of Flesh and Blood, a 90-minute play by Canadian playwright Colin Thomas, the focus is on two brothers living in Vancouver who reach beyond these demons to find each other.

Allan is a reckless 17-year-old who boozes and tokes as if he doesn’t think he’ll turn 20. Sex, which he has with a lot of women, makes up for what he believes life has denied him. Allan’s one anchor is his older brother Jim, a 26-year-old gay man who is in every other way a very straight arrow. For years Jim has made up for the failures of a dysfunctional father and rigidly fundamentalist mother, setting examples they wouldn’t, even urging Allan to wear condoms, no matter how funny they feel. The cocky, I’m-gonna-live-forever Allan offers practically every excuse for not using them.

The biggest argument for condoms comes from Jim himself, who now confronts full-blown AIDS. He delays telling Allan, partly because he wants to spare him one more ordeal, but mainly because he feels guilty about being gay. (He even wonders whether he deserves AIDS.) For Allan the only question is the scary one: “How could you kill yourself?” “Because we just didn’t know,” Jim replies. Allan has no such excuse.

Helping the brothers cope with these difficult feelings is Ralph, Jim’s ex-lover and a very uncloseted gay man, who shows Allan that Jim’s sexuality has brought him as much joy as pain. Ralph also makes it clear that Allan is wrong to think gays are OK as long as they don’t act on their longings (another kind of death trap). The last member of this accidental family, Allan’s girlfriend Sherri-Lee, watches the others’ pain and realizes that she has to stop thinking that sex means security.

Much of Flesh and Blood plays like a well-meant after-school special, no surprise since Thomas wrote it for Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre, which toured high schools and community centers. But unlike those TV exercises in uplift, Flesh and Blood isn’t afraid to get specific–if not about safer sex, then about how it feels to have AIDS. No doubt these enlightened scare tactics have helped get the message across.

Strongest are the play’s examples of how love combats death, of how unlikely friends can find things to share (as when Ralph encourages Allan to try making love to Puccini). The final scene alone–in which Allan tearfully tells his rapidly dying brother how sorry he is–more than justifies the play and production.

A U.S. premiere and one of ten offerings in Bailiwick Repertory’s Pride Performance Series, David Dillon’s staging works hard to overcome the play’s didactic urge and succeeds, thanks to four well-targeted, warmly wrought portrayals. Paul Boyer, playing Jim as well as narrating, makes it clear that this is always Jim’s story. (If the closeted, self-hating Jim seems dated, it may be because we like to believe that his kind of internalized homophobia is obsolete.) By driving home Jim’s unforced, down-home decency, Boyer underlines the irony of Jim wanting to look after Allan when he himself most needs attention (though Boyer still needs to provide a stronger sense of the crises Jim faces).

Jamie Denton’s sympathetic Ralph shows great sensitivity to Jim’s volatile mood swings. Though their love scene late in the play is not in the script, it not only parallels the steamy one between Allan and Sherri-Lee but also shows how much Jim has overcome his fear of sex. Katie Walsh plays the protofeminist Sherri-Lee with sharp attention to detail.

But the breakthrough performance comes from Daniel Blinkoff, whose complex take on Allan ranges from denial to obstinacy to punk abandon to intense regret–all of it as real as the tears Blinkoff couldn’t fight as his character poured out a lifetime of indebtedness to his comatose brother. Nowadays that searing, one-sided hospital farewell is too common to have to be be faked. Blinkoff gets it painfully right, for everyone who’s been there or who will be.