at Halsted Theatre Centre

People who get AIDS are all perverts, right? And deserve what they get?

Most people who have these ideas will probably not choose to see Intimacies, a one-man show written and performed by Michael Kearns, who depicts six people with AIDS. But anyone who did harbor them might feel themselves justified after seeing this play. All six of Michael Kearns’s AIDS-infected characters are the stereotypical dregs of society, full of hatred and self-loathing. But Kearns’s formidable talents, as both writer and performer, make Intimacies a chilling, grippingly intense theatrical experience.

Kearns clearly intends to show only the AIDS victims who inhabit society’s underbelly. More than five years ago, he set aside all his other projects in order to devote himself to the AIDS crisis. An outspoken activist whose work is widely known on the west coast, Kearns began to wonder about the people he wasn’t representing, whose voices were never heard–those who were politically incorrect or insufficiently noble or just plain nasty. The ones nobody cares about, but who are dying nonetheless.

So Kearns developed Intimacies. And he seems to be saying: “Look. These people are ugly, hateful, and selfish, but they are human beings. And they are dying. And we should care.”

Well, he’s right. We should care. But somehow that’s tough–these people were hateful enough to anger me. And it angered me that an artist as talented and caring as Kearns should devote himself to them when lots of loving, innocent people are dying of AIDS without society caring much about it.

Perhaps the problem is that Intimacies offers only a partial look at the AIDS picture. On the west coast, Kearns’s work is well enough known that Intimacies can be seen as one more step in the process of unraveling the complex tapestry of prejudice against AIDS victims. But in the midwest, where Kearns’s work is relatively unknown, Intimacies can’t help but seem narrow–and it actually confirms society’s fears and misconceptions by presenting a show made up entirely of junkies, whores, bigots, and transvestites.

We’re made even more uncomfortable because Kearns is so talented: he makes these characters so real you squirm. But he does show us their humanity, and makes us really think about our feelings about AIDS and AIDS victims–discover the prejudices within ourselves. It is shaming to watch Kearns’s despicable characters and realize that, however bad they are, they don’t deserve to die. It’s the disease that’s evil, and no matter who is dying, the disease must be stopped.

But it is disturbing nonetheless that not a single character in Intimacies comes off as innocent. Denny is a brazen queen who claims to be “the one who gave gay liberation a bad name.” Big Red, the most moving and engaging of the characters, is a whore who only does hand jobs now that she’s infected. Patrick is an uptight, promiscuous egotist who is so afraid of anyone finding out he has AIDS that he refuses to tell even his partner of seven years. Rusty is a young junkie, a prostitute who doesn’t care who he gives the disease to, since they’re all perverted slime anyway. Mary is an aging, bigoted mother out of a Tennessee Williams play. She contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, but she proceeds to inform us of her incestuous relationship with her son, now a homosexual. And Phoenix, the final portrait, is an older junkie, a biker type, who finally finds love with another AIDS victim and a cat. All are embarrassments not only to society but to humanity. Yet Kearns portrays them so lovingly, and with such technical proficiency, that their humanity shines through. Though we can’t really like them, we do come to understand them, and so we feel sorry about their impending deaths.

The production itself is impeccable. Kearns is mesmerizing, using precisely distinct mannerisms and vocal patterns for each character. He transforms himself from one to another using only a long, thin, red scarf and a black stool. Fairly abstract slides flash across a screen behind Kearns, heightening and further distinguishing each character. An onstage musician (Darien Martus, who also composed the score) completes the different moods.

There is no doubt that Michael Kearns is a dedicated, impressive talent, and that Intimacies is a hard-hitting, thought-provoking piece of theater. The people I know who saw it on opening night are still having heated debates about it–was this the way to approach AIDS or not?–and awareness is a first step toward action. (In fact action is being taken just by buying a ticket, since a portion of the proceeds goes to Open Hand Chicago, a meals-on-wheels program for AIDS victims and their families.)

But while society is still so frightened of AIDS, it may be irresponsible to show only these six representatives of the AIDS-infected population. And it may be insulting to anyone who has the disease to be linked with the true misfits and perverts whom Kearns portrays. His compassion is remarkable, but perhaps we’re not ready for such an uncomfortable vision of an already difficult subject.