The experience of ProjectSEE Theatre's debut production begins with visual art well before the show starts.
The space in the Downtown Arts Center's black-box theater is designed so patrons on their way to their seats must filter through an art exhibit of six doors, each painted by area artists to commemorate the life of a local resident who died of AIDS, the theme of Steven Dietz's play, Lonely Planet.
Spending some time reading the artists' statements, looking at the doors, and letting it sink in that each one represents someone you might have known is sobering preparation for the play. An impassioned and educational curtain speech by a representative ofAIDS Volunteers Inc., one of the show's primary sponsors, sharpens the focus of the evening's theme even more crisply.
By the time actors Timothy Hull and Nick Vannoy take to the boards, the audience is primed for an AIDS-themed play, bracing for the emotionally gut-wrenching truths and political soap-boxing that are sure to come.
But that is not what happens. Instead, we get Dietz's subtle, poetic, funny and bittersweet exploration of friendship, with the threat of AIDS — the word is never spoken — stealthily circling the perimeter as a kind of offstage entity.
Elegant yet playful direction and stirring performances make for a tenderly wrought yet potent evening of theater.
Director Evan Bergman deftly marshals Hull and Vannoy in exploring the organic, palpable, humorous and, at times, even mysterious chemistry between friends Jody and Carl, two gay men who weather the vast loss of friends to the first large wave of AIDS cases in the early 1980s.
Jody deals with the exponential by withdrawing, never leaving his map store. Carl responds by obsessively collecting chairs that belonged to those who died and letting them pile up in Jody's shop. The empty seats are a haunting and silent reminder of AIDS' encroachment into their lives.
Bergman particularly excels at drawing the audience into the private sphere of the men's friendship by allowing the pacing of their performances to unfold organically. A long, complexly choreographed faux combat scene in which the two buddies use rolled-up maps as pretend swords and play out a fake battle does little to advance an anti-AIDS agenda, but much toward establishing the delightfully silly, ordinary magic of the pair's friendship.
As the play continues, and more empty chairs fill Jody's map shop, the organic exchanges become heavier, full of pregnant silences that Bergman and the cast allow to strain the audience's comfort levels without dragging the show's momentum.
Both Hull and Vannoy deliver smart, engrossing performances, made more enjoyable by their shared sense of timing and ability to swiftly turn from serious to silly, angry to empathetic, harsh to tender and back again with unpredictable but natural cadence. Hull's anguish as Jody is internal but obvious, while Vannoy's Carl masks his pain with fantastical lies and humor.
By the time the lights fade to black in the show's stirring, final scene, we have been swept away by the aching beauty of friendship, one both threatened and spurred on by the unspoken disease that eventually will claim one of them.