Friday, June 22, 2012

Remembering the Plague.

This new production of The Last Session brings back a lot of painful memories. Andrew Sullivan has been discussing this on his blog.
People forget that HIV decimated the immune system - but people actually died from the opportunistic infections. These "OI"s were something out of Dante's Hell. So many drowned to death from pneumocystis. Or they would develop hideous KS lesions, or extremely painful neuropathy (my "buddy" screamed once when I brushed a bedsheet against the tip of his toes), or CMV where a friend of mine had to inject himself in the eyeball to prevent going blind, or toxoplasmosis, a brain degenerative disease where people wake up one day to find they can't tie their shoe-laces, and their memories are falling apart. Within the gay community, 300,000 deaths amounted to a plague of medieval dimensions. Once you knew your T-cells were below a certain level, it was like being in a dark forest where, at any moment, some hideous viral or bacterial creature could emerge and kill you. And for fifteen years there was nothing to take that worked, just the agonizing helplessness of waiting to die, and watching others get assaulted by one terrifying disease after another.
300,000 deaths. No immune system. Death coming in the form of an unknown virus or bacteria that might suddenly arise.

Pneumocystis is what nearly killed me. My t-cells, where "normal" is 1200, were at about 40. Or less. It's hard to remember. After 21 days of I.V. pentamidine, which ruined the taste in my mouth and had me nauseous the whole time, usually lying in a zoned-out daze until the day Jim took me home, hardly able to stand -- a barely animated skeleton, I had to relearn how to walk.

But that's not the story. The story is about the resurrection, the comeback.

In The Last Session, the character of Gideon wants to end his life. It takes place in 1996, just before the drug cocktail. There were few therapies that would work, and for a few months. He is exhausted from the fight. All he wants is control over his life. Control over when to bow out. Though he's hiding this decision from his friends, it's hard not to think that he called them together for more than just a goodbye session.

For me, I never felt suicidal. Not like that. I credit my friends for this. They simply wouldn't let me go.

But how sad to imagine that if I had been like Gideon, if I had killed myself, I wouldn't be here to have seen The Big Voice or Zero Hour or, not, this hot new production. I am so anxious and excited to see that they will do with it.

People have asked me how much involvement Jim and I will have, and the answer is very little. Since Rob Harris, the producer, told me he saw the original production, he understands the piece. He'll keep it on track.  I feel totally safe with him involved.

I also had a great meeting with Tom Turner, the young musical director. He is a brilliant pianist and singer, himself. In fact, he came and sang with us in the sanctuary choir at Christ Church Bay Ridge, while he was here. And I couldn't tell you about any of it! He and I had a great chance to thumb through the songs, and he was terrific. He seemed to "get" the style immediately.

That leaves Guy Retallack, the director. He's going to be approaching this from a totally fresh perspective. He and the others have asked us a few questions about how we approached certain moments -- and I sent them all additional notes about the characters, but we told them to feel free to follow their own vision. My sense is that Guy wants to make it as real as possible, perhaps eschewing some of the theatrical conceits we've used over the years.

IOW, a grittier, more real type of approach. And I say go for it. Try anything. Put it in front of an audience and see if it works.

Truth is, I've been involved in many bare bones productions where we did much the same thing -- mostly because we had no choice. Sometimes, all we had were a few lights and some music stands. It will be interesting to see this choice done with a first class lighting and production team.

Because The Last Session was born from truth.

You don't have to pretend. Just play it and the people will respond.

They always have.

And, best of all, (for me, anyway), I'm here to see it!
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