Josh O’Brien, Jacob Cooper, J. Christopher Age, Zachary Boone, Aurion Johnson, Shayne Brakefield, & Isaiah Archie in Love! Valour! Compassion!. Photo: Pandora
Love! Valour! Compassion!
By Terrence McNally
Directed by Gil Reyes
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
What makes a “Great American Play”? Time might arguably be the most crucial criterion. Does the play still demand our attention a generation or two later? Was Death of A Salesman recognized on opening night as the seminal work it would become? Is that even possible?
Terrence McNally’s place in American theatre history is secure. Prolific, and having received almost every recognition (five Tony awards), Love! Valour! Compassion! Is arguably his masterpiece. In the pantheon of queer literature, it is sometimes seen as one of the important “AIDS” plays, although I think that is a limiting descriptive. Following a group of seven gay men who spend holiday weekends together in upstate New York over the summer of 1995, it strikes me that Boys in the Band is an antecedent, both plays being a study of the gay culture in the United States or at least New York City, at a particular moment in history.
Some of the introductory scenes can feel arch, familiar tropes from a hundred other plays, and McNally is playing with the closed-room confrontation pioneered by American dramatists like Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee, yet he crafts it expertly and with characters carrying fewer secrets than his forebears. If anything these characters know too much about each other and use that intimate knowledge to chilling and cruel effect.
But that first act seems designed to specifically conjure that comparison with earlier playwrights, and I thought of all of the “tortured homosexuals” populating those works, Tenessee Williams in particular. What was once a tragic secret that would destroy lives is here clear and open and a source of pride and joy.
The host, Gregory (J. Christopher Age) is a famous dancer/choreographer struggling to create a new piece at his lake house, his partner, Bobby (Zachary Boone) is a legal assistant, and blind, Perry (Jacob Cooper), a lawyer, and his long-term partner, Arthur (Josh O’Brien) are business consultants for Gregory, Buzz (Aurion Johnson) is a costume designer, and Englishman John (Shayne Brakefield) is a musician who serves as an accompanist in Gregory’s work. None of them are in a closet but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hiding things from each other.
John brings two outsiders into the circle. First, his young lover, Ramon (Isaiah Archie) who is a trained dancer, and later his twin brother, James (also Brakefield), who arrives from England in act two and is dying of AIDS. Ramon stirs the pot but James is gentle and endearing and warmly embraced by the group in a way that John has never been.
McNally establishes clearly defined personalities for each of these people, and the conflicts come from their combined history. Even the most loyal and caring among them are shown to be flawed and capable of betrayal and infidelity. These problems are universal, confronted by us all in the course of time, if not always with the sharp, acerbic sense of humor on display here. The wit leaps off of the stage in one-liners that evoke the period without dating the play, and the performances never miss the potential of McNally’s beautifully observed dialogue.
The ensemble is well-chosen, and each does fine work, but Shayne Brakefield cannot help but stand out. For one actor, as scripted, to play both John and James invites a bravura turn, and Brakefield assuredly builds each brother into striking contrasts of humanity; John a bitter misanthrope who never hesitates to lash out, and James the kindest and most tender of all of the people on stage. It is one of the most beautifully crafted performances or set of performances you will see this year, and features without a doubt the best British dialect I’ve heard from a non-Brit in Louisville.
Jacob Cooper occupies a shared narrator’s space with Brakefield, although at times it seemed a distraction from everything the scenes accomplish, Cooper’s Perry is a solid bulwark to John and more like him than Perry might want to admit. J Christopher Age has the angsty demeanor and wiry physique of a dancer, and he has what might be the most arresting moment in a kitchen confrontation late in the play. He nicely underplays it and it is all the more chilling for it.
Josh O‘Brien realizes the earnestness of the all-too-decent Arthur, Aurion Johnson is a scene-stealing delight as Buzz, Isaiah Archie is a charismatic and precocious Ramon. Director and choreographer Zachary Boone handles himself well in his stage debut, more than promising in essaying a complex character.
I hate to sound complacent, but Pandora has become so consistent in all of its design work that the quality here comes as no surprise, yet Eric Allgeier’s multi-level platforms function with curious flexibility for interior and exterior spaces, suggestive but lacking in detail so that we can imagine a great many things, while Jesse Alford’s lights and Laura Ellis’ sound call little attention to themselves, except for the moving ending, and that feels just right.
Love! Valour! Compassion! also represents the welcome return to the Louisville theatre community of director Gil Reyes, formerly of Theatre . He here has brought the best out of his cast and fashioned a well-paced production that belies the nearly 3-hour running time (with intermission). McNally’s play is epic in its range of emotions but intimate, funny, and heartbreaking enough to feel like this is our life.
Featuring J. Christopher Age, Isaiah Archie, Zachary Boone, Shayne Brakefield, Jacob Cooper, Aurion Johnson, & Josh O’Brien
Love! Valor! Compassion!
September 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16 @ 7:30 pm
September 3 & 10 @ 5:30 pm
September 17 @ 2:30 pm
The Henry Clay Theater
604 S. Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.