The Happy Hour's journey to a world-premiere production by ActOut Theatre Group started in an appropriate place.
"I first met Stephen in a bar," ActOut member Terry Mullins said of playwright Stephen Currens. "I was bartending, and Stephen was one of my happy hour patrons, and we became friends."
Currens was a pretty good friend for a theater artist like Mullins to have. The Lafayette High School and University of Kentucky graduate took a musical he wrote, Gorey Stories, all the way to Broadway in 1978. New York in the 1980s, Currens says, was a terrifying time and place for gay men.
"I lived through a historic period in this country when the AIDS epidemic first hit New York City and then spread to the Midwest and mid-America," Currens says. "It was a period of time when a lot of blame was cast on the gay community. I thought it was an unfair situation because we were living at the height of the sexual revolution, and a lot of people got caught in that situation because a virus reared its ugly head."
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The Happy Hour is Currens' take on a period that has been chronicled in numerous stage works, including Jonathan Larson's Rent and Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
Happy Hour focuses on Seth, a young gay man in New York who watches friends and lovers die around him as AIDS places its frightening grip on his community. The play recounts the lengths men went to so they could practice "safe sex" — "which later became 'safer sex,' because there really is no safe sex," Currens says — and rumors, fears and false feelings of safety that permeated society at the time.
Max Reid, 23, the actor who plays Seth, says it recounts a time he knew about but didn't have a connection to.
"This is a version of the story I had never heard before, and this one was terrifying because of the disappearance these loved ones make from Seth's life," Reid says. "They slowly fade into the mist, and then they're gone.
"I've had the rare opportunity to be around people who have been through that and could share their experiences."
To Currens, those people were the important part of the story.
"At that time, the political climate in the country was one of alienation," he says. "It was shoving people aside and putting them in a category to keep them away from the mainstream when, in fact, they were people just like everybody else. That's what the play is about. ... It's about what happens to a person when he loses his friend circle, his support mechanism, and what happens when that mechanism entirely fails."
The play had been brewing in Currens' mind for more than a decade, and when his longtime friend, director Julieanne Pogue, read it, she wanted to direct it.
"I had been manager of a clinic that offered free and anonymous testing for HIV in the early '80s in the San Fernando Valley" outside of Los Angeles, Pogue said. "I gave positive results over and over and over, and I gave counseling to gay men and their families.
"When I read the play, I felt so strongly about what it was saying, and the loss and pain that everyone felt."
It's something that she, Currens and others think is important to remind people about, lest they get too comfortable in this era, when AIDS is not seen as the death sentence it once was.
"Now it's on the uprise in teens; it's on the uprise in Hispanic women," Pogue says. "So this is a cautionary tale, but also one to touch people."
And Mullins says ActOut is happy to present it.
"I really had no idea when we started talking that we would be presenting a world premiere by Stephen Currens," Mullins says. "It's almost intimidating to think what we're trying to pull off here and do it justice."