Room Enough. Photo by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha
In all the time history has been recorded, there has never been anything as overarchingly catastrophic for gay men as a group than the AIDS epidemic. It began in the early 1980s, and it was a time of mass hysteria around the world. It is sometimes known as the AIDS Crisis Era. Gay men might be misdiagnosed and therefore, go on having unprotected sex, not realizing they were contagious. Distrust of medical professionals and pharmaceutical companies permeated. There was distrust of the drugs themselves. Polarization became a dangerous norm.
Activists and religious groups were bitterly at odds. Quarantine camps were rumored to be in the works and in some countries, HIV-positive men were sequestered in gulags and prisons. Gay men of all colors and socio-economic backgrounds could die swiftly or endure long painful deaths as they deteriorated to emaciation, often covered in lesions.
For years, gay men were stigmatized whether they were HIV-positive or not: the timeless guilt-by-association problem. Paranoia swept the world because there was no certainty over just how the HIV virus began and just how it was spread. Even when clarifying information became reasonably established, irrationality still held sway in many places, even in sophisticated metropolitan areas: shaking hands, sitting on toilet seats, dry kisses on the cheek, hugs—all were quite often suspect—even by otherwise balanced and reasonable people. President Reagan was criticized for not speaking out earlier than he did about it and both political parties were blamed for the same in both Houses of Congress. Activists raised hell against Democrat New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was generally held up as a gay hypocrite for his alleged inaction. Finger pointing. Fake blood packets thrown in protest. Police with rubber gloves. Disrupted worship services. Disrupted funeral services.
So just imagine that if the largest cities with the largest gay populations and the nation’s capitol were tongue-tied, terrified, and confused, then how could one expect small town America be anything but viscerally fearful? Few if any plays have captured that perspective as powerfully and scrupulously as Room Enough, a new drama by Robb Kreuger that equals Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, the longstanding gold standard of the AIDS plays canon. And it should be noted that both of those plays outdistance Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Parts I and II, which was anointed as the great AIDS stage play in a mega-wave of hype, much like how The Book of Mormon was regaled in recent years.
The problem is that Kushner’s opus is congealed in ideological polemics. Though Kramer, like Kushner, is certainly left-wing in his thinking, he wrestles with politics with raw and compelling muscularity, and even psychological nuance, in a notable way that translates into theatrical truth. Krueger, though definitely liberal in his sensibilities, never lets politics overtake the humanity of any character, including a Republican mother character named Lydia. His conservative characters wrestle with a tortured sense of love and confusion. This is ingenious, given the subject matter, time, and place. Krueger has reached a point of wisdom.
This month, Phoenix Theater in Uptown, Minneapolis hosted the first production of Room Enough in a gripping staging by Flannel Mafia Theatre Group. Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha vividly apprehended Krueger’s uncanny observations of homophobia in small town Minnesota and of the desperate way frightened gay men of the time clutched and held to one another on the rocky road to death.
Colton Moyer was devastating as young Michael, who has left home to live in Minneapolis’s more accepting environment. This gifted young actor embodied a Christlike vulnerability in the character’s struggle against the virus, yet was never sanctimonious.
Moyer’s delicacy was contrasted strikingly by a dazzling Charliey Libra as his partner, David. Libra’s performance could have been described as a remarkable journey from flamboyant petulance signifying serious insecurity, to a kind of enlightenment in the face of grief and dying all around him. This pair ultimately created one of the most touching gay love relationships seen on stage in recent years.
Jean Wolff, in one of the best performances of her career, riveted as Michael’s mother, Laura. From descriptions of social and religious mean-spiritedness in her town, incisively written by Krueger, to an inner spiritual shift, the actress demonstrated a marvelous range of consciousness levels. Wolff is one of our most accomplished local veteran actors.
Scott Gilbert as Russ, Michael’s abusively controlling father, lifted his role beyond a redneck “deplorable” stereotype, rendering a man who would have had a hard enough time dealing with his son being homosexual even without the epidemic’s hysteria. Tragically, the era’s blanket of mass fear has triggered Russ’s lower self. And he knows it. On a deep level, Russ seems to know that this is not how a father should be and behave, but he is thrown to rigid gender codes*. Gilbert seems to have mined all this in a portrayal that was wrenching. I was reminded of some the best film performances of Rip Torn. Where Kushner’s big bad homophobe is a caustically and entertainingly stereotypical Roy Cohn, Krueger’s Russ is flesh and blood.
Jane Burke’s turn as David’s mother, Lydia, was rather chilling. Her demeanor recalled the matronly loftiness of the late Barbara Bush. This is fitting, given that Lydia is the wife of a reactionary politician and family driven by appearances. We only hear about the father through dialogue: a man who absolutely abhors his son’s naturally feminine nature. Steely Lydia shares that harsh judgement, and as the play progresses, Burke poignantly revealed a mother with paltry emotional tools, pathetically struggling against her cruelty. Like Russ, she is sadly steeped in suffocating anguish, knowing she is in the wrong but incapable of reckoning with it. The intuitive Krueger cautions that homophobia is a phenomenon that can reach pathological proportions.
Room Enough was a theatrical experience that transported the audience into an utterly palpable sense of the ’80s by Pillatzki-Warzeha’s courageous ensemble. It was a reminder that great theater at its core is generated fundamentally by actors who co-create and submit to richly textured energies from a great script to bring forth an alternative reality on stage. They delved headlong into the tragic crack-up of nuclear families and what may be gay history’s darkest chapter.
Note: The AIDS epidemic also horrifically affected others such as bisexual men, and people of both genders who had unprotected sex and/or used intravenous drugs. It also affected babies in the womb. Dirty needles were, and still are, a prime source of infection. Gay men were at the forefront of its initial onslaught. HIV in the West is far more manageable today though it still rages in parts of various countries with full blown toxicity.
*Krueger restores the idea that gender and sexual orientation—and how they are perceived—are intrinsically intertwined when it comes to homosexuality and the resistance to its social acceptance. Unlike the present overarching discourse, he doesn’t separate them. He sees them with an holistic eye.