Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Regeneration Theatre's AS IS, tranformative love during NYC's AIDS epidemic





William M. Hoffman's 1985 play AS IS, which won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play and an Obie for Playwriting, uniquely personalized the AIDS crisis. Regeneration Theatre's revival movingly reminds us how acutely personal "political" can be.

Imagine what it would be like in our politicized time if members of an "outsider" group were getting sick and dying from an unknown virus?  Even this winter of 2018, no one is talking about the fact people are dying from flus not covered in shots--a strange and scary development. So what was it like in New York, when AIDS began sickening young gay men? Everyone knew or worked with someone. But no one openly talked  about it, until the "Gay Plague" grew to encompass so many people it could not be ignored. Intolerance grew with the public's fears.

Disclosing you had been diagnosed with HIV virus was akin to a leper ringing a bell. People did not literally bolt doors and throw rocks, but the stigma was huge. Sickness meant lost jobs and medical care, housing, and often family. The Calvinist streak in the American character justified discrimination,"Gays are perverts and deserve it." "They brought it on themselves." No one wanted to work or live with  a person with AIDS. Such attitudes were common, even when babies were born with HIV.

AS IS focuses less on the ostracism and political fight for medical treatment than extraordinary love and friendship amid the crisis. The main characters, Rich (Brian Alford) and Saul (Robert Maisonette) are at the end of a long-term relationship when AS IS opens. But when Saul learns Rich has the virus, he asks him to stay. Despite Rich's affair, Saul's committment is intact. Like any good marriage, behind the habit,  is humor, understanding and love. Rich's a charming idiosyncratic writer/poet. Saul, a funny photographer, earthy and direct. They had shared meals and comfortable sex, a Paul Cadmus painting and a circle of friends. Separately, Rich's illness had cost him his job and medical coverage. With savings spent on medical bills and no rent, Saul, the practical mainstay, would make life work. 

Why had they ever separated?   A real strength of Regeneration's production is how it recreates the post Stonewall world of quick pick-ups, ephemeral romance and gritty sex. Adventurous, exploratory, ecstatic, or perverse, AS IS shows how a group that came of age hiding "forbidden" sexual longings, went wild in the open gay bars, clubs, trysting places--where freedom was an aphrodisiac. Pat (Rick Calvo), Barney (Mario Claudio), and Chet (Daniel Colon), in clever staging, make these temptations human and palpable.

For Saul and Rich, this freedom is not regretted but fond memories of youth and erotic discovery mostly over once they found each other. Rich's dalliance and Saul's pain disappear in the daily crisis they manage--sometimes well or not. Saul's emotional strength is heroic, yet as Rich's disease progresses,  he also succumbs to desperation. Then something transformative occurs beyond the "Acceptance phase" mirrored in their support group. There's a kind of grace in these men.

Though the world seemed against AIDS victims, AS IS shows how people helped each other, lovers, friends and complete strangers. There's the AIDS hotline where Pat and Barney, patiently answer frightened callers and talk of changed lives. Volunteers were crucial in the crisis, as they are in AS IS.
The play is framed by a Hospice Worker played by the luminous Jenne Vath, who goes from would-be saint to atheist angry at God. Hers is a fierce and brilliant mercy.

Also notable is Colin Chapin, as a hapless but sincere brother and Aury Krebs' compassionate friend. Sara Minisquero did affecting character work, as a silent business partner in a hard trade bar and a voluble wife infected with AIDS along with her unborn child.

The director of this play, Marcus Gualberto, made this material fresh in a time, where health care, as a human right is questioned, along with compassion for the sick. In AS IS human dignity is a reality worthy of respect.  A triumph of this play is to make the lives well-lived the significant story. Having experienced this time myself, as the friend who served as family, I was greatly moved by the kindness and accuracy of this production.

(Below Brian Alford and Sara Minisquero)B

S.W.