At first, a mixture of relief and regret accompanies the realization that Lonely Planet, Steven Dietz’s metaphorical tale of AIDS Generation One, now actually registers

as something of a period piece.

That wasn’t the case in 1995, when Manbites Dog first presented this region with the story of Jody, a man living an ironic, self-imposed exile in a one-room store filled with maps of the world. The reasons for Jody’s strange expatriation slowly come into focus as Carl, his seemingly eccentric, slippery–and above all, insistent–friend repeatedly interrupts it in pursuit of two goals. For motives entirely opaque at the start, Carl is determined to (1) fill Jody’s store with an apparently random assortment of chairs, and (2) get him to actually walk outside for the first time in days, if not weeks.

Though the playwright and this production attempt to stay similarly vague about the time and location of the play (the briefest of landmark references put us in New York), this 1992 script places us solidly back in the era where many of those directly touched by the AIDS epidemic responded in the two ways depicted onstage.

J. Chachula’s Jody vividly represents those who couldn’t face the staggering losses during the first years of plague and effectively buried themselves instead. Where Jay O’Berski initially played an absurdist’s hand in his 1995 take as Carl, this time we never lose the discontent, the drive and the commitment in Jerome Johnson’s notable interpretation.

But wait: Did I actually write the words “relief and regret” and “period piece” at the top of this review?

How monstrous. No, really.

Perhaps both gay culture and American culture have largely moved beyond the depicted shockwaves of grief and self-eclipse in the 1990s.

We interrupt this review for a special report: Death by AIDS has not left the planet. It’s merely changed address–and it has accelerated.

That is why I’m convinced this is one necessary response now to Lonely Planet: We need a moment for the current figures. As humans, we really need a moment now for context.

Since the beginning of this epidemic, some 25 years ago, an estimated 530,000 Americans have died from AIDS. One of them was my closest cousin, a photographer and sculptor named Philip Woods.

In 2003 alone, 2.2 million Africans died from the disease.

With all due–and considerable–respect, that’s a lot of empty chairs.

At this point, well over half of the 40 million people living with AIDS live somewhere in Africa.

Why does it take such a supreme act of will–not to mention imagination–to see not only our beloved dead, but the millions more who now constitute the true center of an atrocity still unfolding?

Is it because it’s not in our neighborhood? Because there is no effective representation of this story–not on this stage, and possibly not on any other stage in the United States?

So much for the “period piece.” Let’s face it: It isn’t Jody in the exile’s room. It’s us. Since well before Sept. 11 our country has been in retreat from an unwelcoming world, ushered into increasing isolation by the present management. Yes, the time is most definitely the present.

And perhaps there is, somewhere in this small gallery, an atlas whose pages depict Swaziland–a country where the rate of AIDS infection in 2003, 38.8 percent of the adult population, was the highest in the world.

So what? We have no plans to leave this room. There’s evil out there–as we’ve been regularly told by those in charge. Yes, it’s best to stay put. Let’s look at maps instead, including this one, on which so many human bodies–both present and missing–do not appear.

Oh, never mind the knocking at the door. After all, it’s only Carl.

It doesn’t take a background in Baptist fundamentalism to see four of the seven proverbial deadlies–pride, greed, envy and anger–within the opening sections of god’s man in texas. After all, if visiting pastor Jerry Mears feels he has to impress Hugo, a backstage audio technician, with his knowledge of Greek scripture, he’s clearly in a vulnerable spot.

And indeed, that vulnerability is exploited throughout David Rambo’s ecclesiastical seduction of the innocent, as Mears, already the head of a prestigious church in San Antonio, learns he’s being groomed to lead the largest Baptist church in the United States. But if Hugo takes on a Mephistophelian tinge with the early line, “I know you want it, and I can help you get it,” by the end of the play, Sean Hannigan’s heartfelt performance reveals the most desperate of believers on the Playmakers stage–one with no viable fallback position, from either his faith or employment.

Rambo’s script shows he’s clearly not unaware of the political and sociological implications of the Baptist megachurch. His text indicates the degree to which it’s based on a cult of personality–though whether that personality is the preacher in the pulpit (Dr. Gottschall, convincingly portrayed by Philip Davidson), or his wife, who pulls a number of strings off stage, remains in doubt.

But the play’s focus on these three characters arguably leaves most of the believers–and most of the real story–out of view. Though Rambo rescues a couple of characters at the end from these temptations, we’re left to wonder–who’s going to save the world?


(Three and a half stars) Marvin’s Room, Deep Dish Theater–In an interview before his death, playwright Scott McPherson said, “I always felt that if I just wrote seriously without the humor, everyone would say it was bad.” Unfortunately, that sums up the major shortcoming in this bipolar script about a family thrown into crisis when its chief caregiver is diagnosed with leukemia.

Yes, there’s room for irony and dark comedy when, after two branches of a lower middle class family are reunited for the first time in decades, adult daughter Bessie needs her relatives typed for a bone marrow match. But the cheap, exasperating vaudeville McPherson repeatedly added to the mix whenever things got heavy indicates the writer didn’t trust his material or his audience enough.

This show’s salvation? Strong acting (and direction by Tony Lea) in selected lead and supporting roles. Morissa Nagel is appreciably earnest as Bessie, but MaryKate Cunningham gives sister Lee a complex matrix of conflicting emotions toward estranged parents, sibling, and her own two kids as well. Christine Rogers and Joyce Weiser fill supporting roles admirably.

But the real find in this production is Lucas Campbell’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Lee’s troubled teenage son, Hank. The second-act scenes where this brooding character ever so tentatively opens up to Bessie form the real emotional center of this work. The actors’ accomplishments here point out that if McPherson’s drama maintained this level of truth and fearlessness throughout, we’d probably have fewer jokes–but a significantly stronger play. (Through March 18).

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