Story: Eight gay men gather at the idyllic country home of Gregory, a famous choreographer who feels the feared touch of encroaching middle age and declining creativity, for a trio of weekends on the three major summer holidays: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
While they’re together to have fun, they bring with them their own concerns. Accountant Arthur and Perry, an attorney and his longtime partner, seem sedate and settled into domesticity. Gregory is in a relationship with Bobby, a blind legal assistant. John Jeckyll, a disliked and dyspeptic musical accompanist, arrives with a ‘boy toy’ in tow, the flirtatious Ramon.
Flamboyant costume designer Buzz spends his time raving about this or that Broadway musical, and is attracted to John’s much more civil twin brother, James, who arrives for the second holiday weekend. Three weekends together in such a short space, though, makes for tension and strife as well as camaraderie.
Highlights: Prolific playwright Terrence McNally has won four Tony Awards, including one for Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995. As Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell mentioned in his opening night remarks, June is Gay Pride Month and Love! Valour! Compassion! is one of three major plays with gay themes (Angels in America and The Normal Heart are the others) that St. Louisans will have had the chance to see within a couple of years (the latter plays at HotCity Theatre in September).
Bell also painstakingly directs the current Stray Dog presentation, which effectively conveys “the private gay world” to which he alludes in his director’s notes, with a couple of noteworthy performances to bolster the lengthy production.
Other Info: Bell’s notes are instructive in a number of ways. He mentions that, since this is a ‘memory play,’ the set designed by Rob Lippert is somewhat minimal, a series of steps that allow entrances and exits to unseen rooms, with a modest kitchen to stage right and a beautiful, impressionistic backdrop that suggests the season.
Bell designed the costumes, with an especially subtle rendering of the British twins, the dour John preferring black while his gentler twin James favors scarves and soft colors. Tyler Duenow’s refined lighting enhances the atmosphere, particularly nocturnal scenes.
McNally’s play is set in three acts, one for each of the summer holidays, with a pair of intermissions. Even so, after a while the theme tends to become enervating and makes the three-plus hours seem so much longer.
Best of the performances are delivered by David Wassilak and Patrick Kelly. Wassilak portrays both twins and does so in precise but understated fashion. It really is marvelous watching him switch from the chronically unhappy John to the seriously ill but charming James, whose losing battle with AIDS doesn’t damper his spirit.
Kelly relishes the role of the stereotypically effeminate Buzz, making the most of the show’s one-liners, which McNally gives almost exclusively to his character.
Stephen Peirick brings depth and dimension to Perry, an attorney who at times seems to almost disapprove of his own lifestyle and is certainly the most cautious of the bunch. Jon Hey is calm, considerate and compassionate as his familiar partner, although he can react with anger when provoked.
Chris Tipp has an easy-going style that meshes well with Ramon’s provocative character, and spends considerable time unclothed, to the admiring glances of the other characters. He also shows Ramon’s driving desire to be a dancer who can measure up to Gregory’s exacting standards.
Zachary Stefaniak does well in the role of Gregory, a man worried about his own future while also protective of his young lover and Bobby’s visually challenged nature. Stefaniak shines in the play’s best scene, an arresting moment when Gregory reaches his boiling point with scary focus.
Zach Wachter completes the cast as the mild-mannered Bobby, whose handicap provides a comfort zone of sorts for his comrades in private conversations.
Bell’s notes accurately observe that “those unfamiliar with the private gay world might be judgmental or uncomfortable in the presence of explicit behavior.” He also remarks that “theater is about showing the human condition. It is not always comfortable. However, it must always be truthful and believable.”
That truth is the strength of McNally’s dialogue and in Stray Dog’s faithful interpretation of Love! Valour! Compassion!
Musical: Love! Valour! Compassion!
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: June 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb