Next Theatre Company



at the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago

Leave it to Hollywood to raise an issue just to bury it: Philadelphia, ballyhooed as the breakthrough mainstream AIDS movie, is as soporific as it is sophomoric in its approach to the most important, most tragic health issue of the century. Gay activist Larry Kramer, in an essay published in the Reader last month, rightly slammed the film for lacking not only political engagement but dramatic dimension and detail in its characterizations, and for abdicating art’s truth-telling role.

As if timed to expose Philadelphia’s self-important superficiality, two theaters are heating up the February freeze with AIDS-themed plays. Evanston’s Next Theatre, which mounted the local premiere of Kramer’s The Normal Heart in 1987, is offering his 1992 sequel The Destiny of Me, while the young, itinerant Palookaville ensemble is shaking the rafters off a Lakeview church with Joe Pintauro’s 1991 Raft of the Medusa. Both works, born in New York off- and off-off-Broadway respectively, have problems–but they stem from the playwrights’ attempts to present unsanitized, personal visions of difficult truths. This is not the predigested feeling served up in Philadelphia by writer Ron Nyswaner and director Jonathan Demme.

Taking its title from a line in Wait Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” The Destiny of Me is Kramer’s song of himself. It’s long, loud, more than a little self-indulgent, and bravely self-revealing, examining the roots of Kramer’s public outrage in his private pain. A pioneering AIDS activist controversial for his confrontational ways, Kramer dramatized in The Normal Heart how he cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis counseling center, then was forced out for his preachy, antagonistic ways.

Taking up several years after The Normal Heart’s wrenching conclusion–a marriage ceremony between Kramer’s autobiographical surrogate Ned Weeks and his dying lover–Destiny finds Ned in the care of a government AIDS doctor whom he had once publicly compared to Hitler. Weary after the loss of friends and lovers and wrung out by a decade of nearly nonstop effort that has brought no satisfying results, Ned turns inward and backward, revisiting his childhood in suburban Eden Heights, Maryland. There he encounters himself as a boy, when his name was Alexander; his straight-arrow older brother Ben; his flamboyant, overbearing mother Rena; and his frustrated, homophobic, authoritarian father Richard. Recalling Our Town in its poignant collision of past and present, the play allows Ned to look back at the youth he once was–and requires the uncomprehending Alexander to view the despairing, bedridden AIDS patient he will become.

The memories Ned’s psychic journey unlocks offer no easy insights or quick cures: instead they prod him to further expressions of anguish, at everything from his own fear of intimacy to the inadequacies of a health care system that’s “a pile of shit run by idiots and quacks” to the years wasted on psychoanalysis in search of a “cure” for his homosexuality. By the time Ned reconciles with the boy he was (the two embrace to the strains of the “Make Believe” duet from Show Boat–what would a gay play be without at least a touch of musical-comedy camp?), Kramer has gone through three acts of traumatic self-examination–some of it harrowingly intense, some of it grimly hilarious, some of it tedious, and all of it punctuated by pungent detail. Along with Ned for the ride are his white southern doctor, Tony Delia Vita, and Nurse Hanniman, Tony’s black wife, who finds herself cast in the role of resented authority figure-heightening the sense that Kramer’s anger at the AIDS crisis is bound up with unresolved oedipal conflict. At one point Ned sardonically asks Hanniman if she isn’t bothered by the knowledge that whatever AIDS treatment her work leads to will be given almost entirely to affluent white Americans while black Africans die in multitudes; another time, Hanniman is doused with fake blood by an army of gay protestors–Ned’s “children.” (The image is echoed in the third-act climax, when an over-the-edge Ned covers himself in the contents of his intravenous plasma bottle.)

Sometimes Destiny sounds like an echo of better-known material by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Woody Allen, Harvey Fierstein, and Philip Roth–Long Day’s Journey Into Kvetch. But there are enough fresh moments of harrowing anger and dark, original comedy to give the play its own life, even in this largely miscast, stodgy production, all the more disappointing in comparison to Next’s excellent staging of The Normal Heart. Under the direction of Harriet Spizziri and Tim Engle, the seven ensemble members almost consistently fail to generate sparks; too often the show is amusing where it should be outrageous, and touching where it should be heartbreaking.

Much of the problem lies in Spizziri’s casting of Steven J. Anderson as Ned. Playing a man who grew up during World War II, he looks at most 30; even viewers used to making accommodations for non-Equity actors’ youth will find Anderson inappropriate in a play whose main strength is the authority of its protagonist’s extraordinary life experience. Anderson also fails to establish any connection with the audience though he regales us with his memories–or to convey Ned’s abrasiveness, exhaustion, and fear. He does come through effectively in two or three Big Speeches, but they seem to come out of nowhere–as unfortunately they’re forced to by the shallowness of girlish Amanda Sullivan and weak, whiny Daniel Ruben as Ned’s parents. Rod Sell and Bridgett R. Williams are capable but again too young as the beleaguered husband-and-wife medical team; Will Casey is unmemorable as the beloved brother Ben.

Luckily, the cast’s one really strong member has a critical role. John Berczeller as Alexander is funny, moving, and mercurial as he evolves from a confused, show-offy kid to a distressed young man embittered by his ride on the psychiatric merry-go-round in search of a “cure.” His focused, tightly wound energy overcomes the earnest dullness that weighs down much of the production and mutes the sharp tones of Kramer’s voice.

No such problem affects Raft of the Medusa, which overcomes a potentially deadly didacticism with the kind of spontaneous, intensely focused performing that’s a hallmark of the best Chicago theater. Like Destiny, this 90-minute one-act (whose title comes from Gericault’s painting of a storm-tossed life raft crowded with shipwreck survivors) brings contemporary reality and the remembered past into the same space: here the setting is a therapy group literally haunted by one of its former members who recently died of AIDS. As the dead man–a rabbinical student named Donald (David Gill)–passes in and out of the room, 11 HIV-positive people and their doctor sit in metal folding chairs trading insights, insults, fears, and grudging affection.

Among the superbly believable characters, well realized under Warren Sampson Jr.’s sensitive direction, are Michael (Bryan Bentlin), Donald’s Irish-Catholic lover struggling not only with grief but with resentment that Donald infected him; Nairobi (Diana Elizabeth Jordan), a hearing-and speech-impaired homeless African American junkie whose husband and children have already died from the virus; Tommy (Vince Kracht) a sweater-ad model rendered unemployable by his gaunt looks; Jimmy (Michael Calas), a Hispanic drug user who thinks he picked up HIV when he was gang-raped in prison; Doug (Paul D. Hertel) and Larry (Wayne Camp), a pair of pretty-boy journalists whose antagonism to each other is fueled by something deeper than professional jealousy; Alan (Fred Schleicher), a street-tough stud with Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his ruggedly handsome face; Felicia (Kris Edlund), a scared teenage girl infected by her drug-shooting boyfriend; Cora (Bonnie Lucas), a Catholic torn between anger at gay men (a bisexual man infected her) and the compassion her religion has instilled in her; and a stylishly scruffy actor named Alec (Robert Alexander), a newcomer to the group who insists he’s just visiting, learning how to help a friend. The other members are divided over whether Alec is researching a role or hiding his own sickness–either way, it’s an insult–but then Alec provides the answer in a breakdown scene of almost unbearable power.

The play unfolds with a documentary rawness that’s reinforced by the production’s technical limitations–including a noisy heater that kicks in from time to time and leaden acoustics that force viewers to work hard to hear the dialogue. The effort is well worth it: the characters’ conflicts are illuminating and grittily believable, and the play is blessedly free of the contrived, commercially calculated compromises that clutter Philadelphia. If you’re looking for honest, gutsy art that responds not only to the AIDS crisis but to what it exposes about the human condition, these plays–Raft of the Medusa especially–are the goods.