Monday, November 12, 2018

We Are Each a “Lonely Planet”

The cast of Lonely Planet (John Ulman)
Lonely Planet
AJ Epstein Presents at West of Lenin
Through November 18, 2018

Steven Dietz’ play, Lonely Planet, was “about” AIDS as the background of the society and culture that two unlikely friends interact in, circa 1993. Jody (Michael Winters) and Carl (Reginald Andre Jackson) are about as different as you can get, and yet reflect that many unknowable connections can draw us together.

Carl presents as homeless… a rangy, hyperactive, rootless guy who likely would be diagnosed with ADD and/or on the autism spectrum today. 25 years ago, when this play was first produced, that kind of diagnosis would be less useful and with fewer medical supports.

Jody presents as a more mainstream business owner, a map store owner, but one who, more and more, cannot leave the store to face what’s outside in the big world. At the beginning of this “relationship play,” Jody seems to tolerate Carl, even as he knows Carl’s foibles, like lying and not taking “no” for an answer.

It starts with a chair. A chair just shows up in the map shop. Jody knows where it must have come from, but not why it appeared.
While we all know that AIDS devastated the Gay community in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, that might be all younger people know. Or even all that older people know if they did not pay attention to this scourge at the time. Now, even though this play could be considered a “period piece,” it’s a reminder, a rather subtle one, of the incredible pace of death that surrounded Gay communities. Particularly taking away vibrant YOUNG adults, many from the most creative endeavors of our society – theater, dance, art, music.

The chairs begin to pile up. Carl is bringing them to Jody’s shop because Carl doesn’t have anywhere else to store them. At first we don’t know why Jody is tolerating this, but eventually, it’s really clear that Jody understands, too, who these chairs belong to and why they are important chairs.

In Carl’s despair, these are his mementoes of people who have died. He can’t bring himself to entirely erase the belongings of people he knows. The collection is his way to honor and remember. Jody, too, is helpless to do anything except allow the chairs to accumulate.

Dietz wanted to explore, per his note in the program, what a life adds up to – what a life leaves behind. His answer was: friends.

This is a quiet and desperate play and the tech support is crucial. Delicate lighting from Rick Paulsen and vigorous or melodic soundscapes from Robertson Witmer combine to cement in atmospheric changes in mood or time of day.

The play asks us to contemplate the same issue as Dietz did. What is a life? What does it stack up to? What do we leave behind and what is our “legacy”? I suspect every answer will be different for each person.

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