Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: The Art of Being Kind

By Ed Malin

Retro Productions has commissioned a new play about the 1980s from playwright Gina Femia. We Are A Masterpiece, directed by DeLisa M. White, indeed follows Retro's mission of bringing us back in time to retell neglected stories, in this case the effect on a small Midwestern city of the very start of the AIDS epidemic.
Joan (Heather Cunningham) is a nurse in Kalamazoo, Michigan, place of contrasts. While the city is culturally significant as home to a college and Bell's Brewery and many contemporary artists, the artists we meet, who are gay, have been disowned by their families. Traditional beliefs abound, and are taught to the young by Father Jerome (Matthew Trumbull), who happens to be Joan's older brother.  Joan lives with her teenage daughter Annie (Pilar Gonzalez); it took Joan some time to stop listening to those who wanted her to stay with her abusive ex-husband.  Joan and her nurse friend Shelly (Sarah Thigpen) have seen it all, until growing number of young gay men, such as Greg (Sam Heldt) get sick with pneumonia and other autoimmune issues. Greg's health rapidly deteriorates, and his partner John (Ben Schnickel) gets to know Joan in the hospital.  One night, Joan takes the unorthodox step of burying her deceased dog in her yard, when Annie confronts her about her compassionate attitude towards the gay men in her care. Many people, including other nurses like Shelly, are afraid that the new illness (soon to be named AIDS) is airborne and contagious. Joan, who has put her life back on track without help from "normal", "good" people, knows that there is no scientific evidence for discriminating against those suffer from AIDS.  Soon enough, Joan is seen burying the cremated remains of AIDS victims in her backyard.
photo by Ric Sechrest
The question of how to live an ethical life dovetails with the question of what makes good art. When the gentle hospital janitor, Tom, asks why some paintings are in museums, local art collector Ryan (Chad Anthony Miller) can only answer that there are no rules. John, who feared he got AIDS from his partner, is soon hospitalized. Joan invites John to come live with her. Joan's radical human kindness has townsfolk shunning her, but also attracts the good-hearted Tom.  Though sick, John tells Joan of his dream of going to New York to be an artist.  The play joyfully alludes to a quote from the Biblical Epistle to the Ephesians: "We are God 's Masterpiece", and perhaps asks us in the audience in 2018 if we have yet learned to treat each other with compassion.
Those who remember the 1980s in general and the preventable spread of AIDS in particular may be worried about those who don't.   Thank goodness for this play.  All aspects of this play will induce a sense of wonder.  Vivienne Galloway's costumes range from down-to-earth nurses to one rainbow priest priest; Galloway also did the makeup for the lesions that cover the many AIDS patients.  This brings me to DeLisa M. White's direction as another great force for revealing our common humanity.  I will never forget a scene in which John stops painting on a canvas to paint around the lesions on Greg's arm, and Greg takes up another brush and paints John's arm.   Rebecca Cunningham's very open sets include the art galleries we cannot see and the spaces where so many loved ones are buried.  All is subtly illuminated by the soft white and red tones of Asa Lipton's lighting.  There is great power in Heather Cunningham as Joan's rejection of the rules that never worked for her, just as there is great warmth in Ric Sechrest's Tom bringing a dying man a self-help book.  If some of these characters are inspired by real people, let's think of individuals we may have known who died of AIDS.  Who could have been saved if the government had treated the infected as people?  When will the cure for AIDS be available?  (See @rftca for some inspiring updates on this.)  In a world where ignorant politicians encourage hate groups, Gina Femia's writing gives us a great opportunity to see the world in a more cooperative light.  You might say that this is a universal story which all kinds of audiences could apply to a variety of situations.