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Play Shows Gay Men Coping With AIDS

Dominion Stage Tackles McNally’s 1994 Play.

As Memorial Day Weekend approaches this is an appropriate time for Dominion Stage to open its production of Terrence McNally’s "Love! Valour! Compassion!" After all, the first act takes place over a Memorial Day Weekend at a lake-side summer home about two hours’ drive north of New York City where a group of gay men have gathered for a weekend of skinny dipping and other forms of "R and R."

Acts two and three take place over the Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, as the men’s relationships evolve in the wake of indiscretions and events during that first weekend. Over it all hangs the specter of a plague that, at that moment appeared both unstoppable and incurable. It was the plague known as AIDS.

That was the mid-1990s. It may be a bit hard to recall just how terrible the epidemic appeared just then. As bad as the AIDS crisis is today, then it seemed even worse because of the factor of the unknown. The gay community in the United States was reeling from the shock of an apparently unstoppable onslaught. The new disease was taking thousands of lives a month and the rate was increasing. Today the trend is down. Where AIDS would take over 50,000 American lives a year then, today it is closer to 10,000 — and treatments have been devised. It is still a scourge and the international as well as domestic implications are staggering. But in 1994 it seemed an unstoppable terror, at least to those in the identified high risk groups.

Terrence McNally, author of such powerful plays as "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" (and later "Master Class" and "Corpus Christie") created this eight-character play that won the Tony Award for Best New Play of 1994. McNally wasn’t just writing about AIDS. He was writing about people. Specifically, male people. In particular, gay male people. Each is a definable individual with strengths, weaknesses, virtues, vices, hopes and fears. The AIDS crisis permeates those fears, but isn’t the only fact of life in their lives.

That Dominion Stage was able to attract seven actors both capable of bringing those characteristics to life and willing to bare all in the process is something of a testament to the strength of the talent pool in our community. The on-stage nudity is treated here, as the play requires, as a simple fact of life among the men in the play. How different characters display or disguise their bodies is but one tool the playwright uses to reveal their personalities.

There’s Buzz, an AIDS victim who flaunts his gayness but not his body. Mario Font handles the role with appropriate flair (it is a role that featured Nathan Lane on Broadway and Jason Alexander in the film adaptation) as a show tune queen. When it came to nudity, however, the character opts for a front-covering barbecue chef’s apron.

On the opposite side of the issue is Ramon, given a vibrant performance by Shawn g. Byers. He’s an openly gay dancer who revels in his body and enjoys showing it off either to shocking effect or simply as an object of beauty. He spends a good deal of the play sunbathing in the nude on a platform at the rear of the stage.

The most touching performance of the evening comes from Luke Morris as the blind young lover of the host of the weekends. He’s vulnerable on so many different levels and Morris gets each of them right. Patrick M. Doneghy is strong and compelling as his lover, the owner of the house and a middle-aged choreographer who fears he may be running out of inspiration for new dances and his body may be getting too battered to execute what dances he does devise.

Matthew Randall doubles as both a British pianist and his AIDS infected brother while Jeffrey Stevenson brings an empathetic tone to the role of one half of a long-term relationship and Richard Isaacs adds the acerbic edge to that of his partner.

As with other productions of the play, the costumes tell about as much about each character as the absence of costumes does. Ceci Albert does a fine job of giving each character a wardrobe that bespeaks personality without overdoing it. That is, until the finale which sees six of the seven don tutus for a bit of "Swan Lake" at an AIDS benefit show.

Director Rick Hayes brings it all together in a well-paced presentation that emphasizes the camaraderie of the group while giving each member a chance to make his reactions to events clear. It is a full evening of emotion with, as is almost always the case with a Terrence McNally play, a good deal of humor.

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Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.