I went to see this play by Terrence McNally (of Master Class fame) on a whim, because I was nearby and I had missed the NYC premiere of it 2 years ago with Tyne Daly in the role of the mother. I knew the play was about a mother who arrives unexpectedly to visit the lover of her dead son who died of AIDS 20 years earlier - and finds him married to a 15-year-younger man with a 6-year old son. You can read the review of the 2014 NYC production here.
The play hit closer to home than I had expected because the dead son had been an actor and it is explicitly mentioned in the play that he died at 29 shortly before a cure was found and dying of AIDS is not a pretty thing. It turns out that an actor acquaintance of mine in Paris died of AIDS in the summer of 1996 in his mid-thirties. (There have been a few deaths of people I was close to during my time in Paris, and the people who know me know what I'm talking about. We're all affected by the deaths of people close to us sooner or later and I was affected sooner. This one was neither sudden nor unexpected but it was tough in different ways.)
I hadn't expected the play to remind me of him as much as it did. But of course the same questions are there: what life didn't he have, what did his friends become? His entire generation was deprived of some amazing artists and thinkers because of that plague. (In the U.S., the names of Alvin Ailey and Robert Mapplethorpe come to mind.) Those were the days where in France obituaries would talk about "deaths after a long illness" as an euphemism for AIDS because that word was taboo but people could read between the lines.
I remember reading an article in the New York Times along the same lines, on how some people were saved from certain death within days by a dramatically effective treatment found in 1996, although it only made the cells inactive and didn't make them disappear, which opened a whole new range of health issues. And when I looked at the timeline, I thought: it was really a matter of months. Some people lucked out and some didn't. That acquaintance didn't.
The performance was particularly poignant because it was held the Sunday after the shooting in Orlando happened, and many middle-aged gay couples were in attendance - the age of Cal and Andre in the play. And I had to wonder, what friends did they lose, what did they have to go through to be here today?
The play was spellbinding and made its points without being preachy, in spite of the difficult subject. The quality of the direction, acting and costumes/sets was extremely high. The lines about Dallas got many laughs - I hadn't realized the mother was coming from Dallas and the local color provided some lighthearted moments in a heartrending play.
It is always tough to lose young people. What makes the AIDS case different is the epidemic that ravaged creative communities in New York City (where Cal and Andre lived) and elsewhere - the then lack of understanding of how the disease spread, the speed of the illness, the lack of a cure (even now there is no cure, only a treatment that makes the cells dormant). Plague is not too strong a word to describe what it was like 20 years ago.
One gets out of the theater feeling for Cal - who doesn't have AIDS, doesn't know who gave AIDS to Andre or who Andre cheated on him with, and who was deprived of the future he had envisioned with the man he loved - Katherine - who lost her only son, holds a number of prejudices about gay men ("he wasn't gay when he left for New York!") and doesn't seem to have an existence of her own - Will - who has had to put up with the ghost of his husband's dead lover for years - and their young son Bud, who ultimately offers Katherine redemption in a way I won't disclose. A far more beautiful play than the quick description of "AIDS tale" would suggest, it is a story about how loved ones continue to haunt the people they have left behind and how they come to terms with the loss.