A play featuring multiple bedrooms in a big country house, with barefooted tip-toeing through the halls for mix-and-match sexual assignations in the dead of night is usually a farce, though Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! is, rather, a tense dramatic comedy, a sort of Decamaron where eight gay men of the mid ‘90s hide on summer holiday weekends from the plague (AIDS) ravaging the outer world.
The situations and actions of the characters are comic, while their attitudes toward themselves are very serious indeed. They are for the most part washed up, jealous, bitter, uncertain about careers, their own attractiveness, the fidelity of lovers, and in the case of the two who bring AIDS into the little loving company, their very lives.
There is so much rancor it’s hard to remember why these men hang out together. When there is love, it’s often the simple animal need for a warm body beside you through the scary night. Commitment is a dreary habit, the future a lengthening shadow leading further and further from the point where you were young, healthy and beautiful.
Only Ramon, a personable outsider, and Bobby, sanctified by blindness, seem to be fully comfortable in their skins. Only Ramon, the instinctive artist, unburdened by either doubts or contemplation, is able to articulate exactly what he wants.
Though a playwright, McNally doesn’t seem to trust the form very much, constantly stopping the action to have his characters deliver right-to-the audience explanations of action, motivation, and outcome. The year is 1994, when AIDS was the cutting edge of gay history (as it is now for those who have it) and the author is at pains to make sure that every statement aligns to the social correctness of the time. He audience-proofs the play so that a “wrong” or unsympathetic interpretation is nearly impossible. McNally’s cunning stop-the-action orations persuade us to forget that our responses are being carefully micro-managed, that there is very little actual drama in this play, and some of that pretty implausible.
In the course of the story, one character accuses another of using the word “anyway” to escape whenever he’s cornered in an argument. One can accuse McNally of using grand soliloquy in the same way. Love! Valour! Compassion! refuses to decide whether it’s a fairy tale (in every possible sense of the word) or hard biting social commentary, and it misses enduring relevance as a play–while remaining an important historical document–because of this indecision.
Still, perhaps for a while longer, sheer rhetorical insistence carries the day. It’s like the best sermon in the hippest church in the world, full of succulent anecdotes, however far from an integrated theme it might wander. In spite of everything. Love! Valour! Compassion! Remains amusing, engaging, vital theater. THAT’s how good McNally’s language is.
Whatever was going on in the playwright’s mind, Stephanie Hickling Beckman’s direction is sure, wise and revealing. She updates the text judiciously, and plays the tiny space of 35 Below like a virtuoso. This play, with multiple rather grand locales, would seem to require more elbow room, but she turns the cramped into the intimate, and fosters an unusual sense of community between actors and audience.
The first task of a director, choosing the right cast, she essayed triumphantly, for the performances in this production are uniformly excellent. Trevor Rayshay Perry and Jonathan Emory Milner — as opposite ends of the emotional continuum, one a near-hysterical theater queen and the other a paradigm of angelic acceptance — are standouts in this fine and brave cast.
different strokes! performing arts collective commences its history with this production, all proceeds from which go to WNCAP, the Western Carolina AIDS Project. Catch Love! Valour! Compassion! at 7:30 at 35 Below (underneath Asheville Community Theater) through May 14.. Tickets may be had at the door. or by phoning different strokes at 828 490-1405