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Love! Valour! Compassion!
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 14, 2014

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Zachary Stefaniak, Patrick Kelly, David Wassilak, Stephen Peirick, Jonathan Hey, Zach Wachter
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 

Love! Valour! Compassion! is a play I’d never had the chance to see before attending the production currently being presented at Stray Dog Theatre.  I knew the basic premise and that there was at least some amount of nudity, but otherwise basically what  I knew was that Terrence McNally is an accomplished, award-winning playwright, this play was critically acclaimed and won several awards in its initial Broadway run (with Nathan Lane in the cast), and Stray Dog has never ceased to impress me with the quality of their shows.  After seeing the show, I can say that as far as I’m concerned, Stray Dog still has a perfect track record.  This show may put some people off with its mature subject matter and yes, the nudity, but really it’s about people, with richly drawn characters and relationships, portrayed by a truly wonderful cast.

Set at an idyllic, secluded lakeside cabin in upstate New York, the story is presented in a stylized, overtly theatrical, occasionally poetic manner, as each of the characters breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, alternately narrating the happenings over three successive holiday weekends and reflecting on matters of life, art, belonging, fear and humanity. Eight gay men, most of whom are longtime friends, spend the weekends talking, laughing, singing, boating and sometimes skinny dipping in the lake.  Relationships are built, renewed, challenged and sometimes broken, and hopes, fears and insecurities are shared.  This is 1994, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America. Two of the characters–the bubbly, musical-obsessed Buzz (Patrick Kelly), and the gentle, sweet, British James (David Wassilak)–are dealing with the disease while the group plans a dance performance for a benefit concert, and others deal with survivors’ guilt and the prospect of losing more dear friends to the epidemic. Mortality is at the forefront in other ways, as well, as celebrated choreographer and dancer Gregory (Zachary Stefaniak), who owns the cabin, deals with the reality that his body is aging and that he won’t be able to dance at the same level much longer, as well as the insecurities of his relationship with his much younger boyfriend Bobby (Zach Wachter), who is blind. There’s also long-term couple Perry (Stephen Peirick) and Arthur (Jonathan Hey), who are celebrating their 14th anniversary and dealing with issues of stagnancy and temptation. Also in the group are the acerbic and manipulative John (also Wassilak), twin brother and polar opposite of James, and Ramon (Chris Tipp), a good-looking, brash 22-year-old dancer with an eye for Bobby, and who poses a threat to Gregory both as a romantic rival and as a symbol of youth and potential in his dance career.

This show is essentially a character study. It’s about how gay men relate to one another and to the world around them. It’s also about the human condition, and the nakedness here goes beyond the merely physical.  In fact, the actual nudity is dealt with in such a way that it becomes basically incidental, with more importance being given to the baring of emotions.  The cast here is nothing short of superb, across the board. Each character is fully realized and ideally cast.  The most memorable performances for me were those of Kelly as the endearingly enthusiastic Buzz, with his list of obscure musical theatre facts and his (not always successful) determination to stay positive in the midst of his illness, and of Wassilak in the extremely challenging dual role of a pair of identical twins with anything but identical personalities.  The distinction between the characters is immediately obvious due to Wassilak’s mannerisms, even in one poignant and memorable scene in which he portrays a conversation between both characters, shifting between the characterizations with apparent ease. Kelly and Wassilak (as James) share some of the play’s more poignant scenes, as well. Stefaniak is also impressive as the compassionate and proud Gregory, and Wachter is charming as the alternately optimistic and bewildered Bobby. Hey and Peirick display excellent chemistry as Arthur and Perry, and Tipp is full of bravado and attitude as the confrontational Ramon.  There are many great scenes, but what is most impressive is the overall cohesive energy of this group of actors.

The dialogue here is sharp and witty in moments, and occasionally sentimental.  It’s a very obviously theatrical script, with the words and rhythms of speech emphasizing the heightened emotions.  There’s quite a bit of humor as well as more intense drama over the course of an approximately three-and-a-half hour running time (with two intermissions). It’s all very well paced by director Gary F. Bell, who also designed the very character-appropriate costumes.  The world of the cabin by the lake is also fully realized by Rob Lippert’s evocative set, and a backdrop by Lippert and Gary Karasek that gives the suggestion of an Impressionist painting.  There’s also great lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been that helps add to the overall rustic atmosphere.

I think one of the most important aspects of theeatre is its capacity for communication and education.  Situations can be different, and people are different, but no matter how different we are, we are all human and we can learn so much from one another if we will just take the time to listen.  Love! Valour! Compassion! will raise a lot of questions and give audience members a lot to think and talk about after the show is over. Stray Dog’s production is even more impressive than I had expected. It’s a memorable and profound production.

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Jonathan Hey, Stephen Peirick, Chris Tipp, Patrick Kelly
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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