Many plays dealing with the heart of the AIDS crisis feature justifiable anger and fury. Yet Steven Dietz’s 1994 play Lonely Planet demonstrates that a gentle approach can be just as powerful and touching, as it is in the excellent production now playing at MetroStage.
Lonely Planet is the story of Jody (Michael Russotto) and Carl (Eric Sutton.) Jody, the older of the two men, owns a map store. His response to the death of many friends is to retreat inside himself. He is finding it harder to leave the store, to keep it open, or even to answer the phone or door. He finds it increasingly difficult to remember the details of his past, but can clearly describe his haunting dreams. His depression and fear of the outside world are on the verge of overwhelming his life.
Fortunately, Jody has a friend in Carl. Carl is a much more flamboyant and energetic man who has a totally different response to the loss of their friends. He constantly urges Jody to leave the store. He starts bringing an odd menagerie of chairs to Jody’s store. The store becomes increasingly cluttered, much as the minds of the two men are increasing occupied by the memories of dead friends.
Carl understands that Jody needs him to keep from being crushed by reality. Carl spends so much time at the store, gently pestering Jody, that he seems to get more calls there than Jody does. Jody, in response, calls Carl the little brother he never wanted to have and pleads with him to make someone else his project.
Lonely Planet opens slowly and proceeds at an unhurried pace. The late 1980’s setting is gradually made clear through dialogue and music, especially the Joe Cocker rendition of Jody’s favorite song, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released”. The play never explicitly mentions the word AIDS, which only serves to give its background of sadness and mortality a growing omnipresence for the audience.
The play’s slow moving plot requires a little patience from the audience. For example, the second act mostly revolves around whether Jody can be persuaded to leave the store to get tested. But wait for it – the story resolves itself in a melancholy yet hopeful manner, and the ride to resolution is made enjoyable by the interactions of these two interesting characters.
The play’s tempo allows for some interesting digressions. Jody describes the distortion of maps, such as the Mercator projection map that makes Greenland appear huge because of its perspective. The fact that his friends are dying is his “Greenland problem” because it distorts his view of life. Similarly, one’s view of our own lives can be altered by a famous picture of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew which at times is projected above the set. Carl’s collection of chairs leads to a lengthy discussion of the Ionesco absurdist play The Chairs.
Carl is the showier of the two roles and Sutton gives the character (and the play) a welcome jolt of energy and humor. While Russotto has given many fine performances in recent years, his ability to fall naturally into the role of Jody and give him an endearing humanity may be one of his finest accomplishments.
With a play in which the actors deliver such nicely detailed portrayals and have such a natural rapport, credit must go to the director, John Vreeke. Vreeke also has the confidence to trust in Steven Dietz’s script and lets the story play out gradually while capturing the humor and the emotional highlights. He strikes a good balance between the simplicity and the fanciful nature of Lonely Planet.
To describe Lonely Planet as an “AIDS play” is accurate yet incomplete. It is really more of a story about friendship and its importance in a troubling world. The term Lonely Planet is an apt description of the famous picture of Earth from space. It helps make us all humbly aware of our relative insignificance and the importance of relationships. While the story has a nice degree of specificity, the story has more universal themes which make it worth seeing for any audience.
The map store set created by Jane Fink is strewn with maps, globes, books, and (eventually) chairs. It not only seems realistic, but it serves to match Jody’s character. The lighting design of Jessica Winfield has some nice highlights, especially as the play moves to its resolution.
Recently there have been revivals of AIDS era plays, such as the recent Broadway production Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart which won three Tony Awards last year and is coming soon to Arena Stage. As the best of these plays demonstrate, this theatre is both reminiscent of an era but also able to have meaning beyond their immediate circumstances.
MetroStage made an excellent choice in showcasing Lonely Planet, a warmhearted and memorable story of friendship featuring two outstanding acting performances.
Written by Steven Dietz
Directed by John Vreeke
Produced by MetroStage
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (one intermission)
Rating of the show: Highly Recommended