Map of the Heart

The Pope Theatre Company's production of Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet took me by surprise. Partway through the two-character play I found myself squirming in my seat, consulting my watch, and wishing something A anything A would happen in the long-winded, overly anecdotal, and slow-moving drama. By the end, something does happen. Through an accrual of carefully paced details, the actors lead us to a powerful conclusion about the significance of friendship in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Anyone patient enough to sit through the Manalapan-based Pope's painstakingly crafted two acts will find himself deeply affected.

Set entirely inside Jody's Maps, a store on the oldest street in an unnamed U.S. city, Lonely Planet introduces us to two men coping, each in his idiosyncratic way, with the demise of his familiar world. Terrified of contracting the disease decimating his community of friends, Jody (Louis Tyrrell) takes refuge in the compulsively tidy sanctuary of his shop, refusing to go out, refusing even to go home. Living among his beloved maps A "They are fixed objects," he asserts, "pictures of what's known, attempts to make order" A he can delude himself that he lives in a universe that makes sense. Jody's hyperactive friend Carl (Warren Kelley), running from one job to another, drops in and out of the shop, bringing Jody news of the world. One morning he disrupts the shop's harmony by leaving behind a chair. A map may be Jody's metaphor for a perfect world, but a chair, it turns out, represents much more than Carl's metaphor for the loss of community A this particular one belonged to a friend who just died from complications related to AIDS. Before long, chairs left behind by dead friends clutter the entire shop; against this backdrop of accumulating chairs, Jody and Carl's friendship unfolds.

Friendship may be important in life, but on stage it tends to pack less dramatic punch than other relationships, particularly if, as in this case, the script relies on wordy exposition to emphasize a friendship's quieter, more enduring aspects. To compensate for a lack of conflict, Dietz fills the space not only with maps and chairs but with Jody's dreams and Carl's job descriptions, references that echo throughout the work like repeating musical themes. The playwright also includes clever homages to the absurdist tradition of the 1950s, in particular to Eugene Ionesco's 1952 play The Chairs.

Director J. Barry Lewis responds to the material with restraint, setting a measured, simmering tempo that ultimately yields an emotional reward but does little to relieve the tedium of the first part of the evening: Jody addresses the audience; Carl arrives with chairs, does a manic dance-with-cute-accompanying-story around the shop, leaves, returns. Warren Kelley's initially grating portrayal of Carl as wide-eyed, childlike, and willfully eccentric does not make the work any easier to watch. As the production progresses, however, Kelley loses his earlier mannerisms, credibly expressing Carl's devotion to Jody and his difficult but committed mission as a gay man to "find the worth of myself in the middle of this disease."

In a consistently focused and very effective performance, Tyrrell, as Jody, embraces life even as he cowers behind the door of his shop. The most gripping scene of the evening reveals the strength of Tyrrell's acting as encouraged by Lewis's direction. Awaiting the result of an HIV blood test, and then reacting when he receives the results over the phone, Tyrrell divulges a wealth of feeling without saying a single word. Unfortunately, Dietz's overwriting intrudes when he has Carl ask, "How do you feel?"

Ironically, in a script that suffers from expository overkill, the words AIDS, gay, and homosexual never are mentioned. Neither is sex, for that matter, except in a passing reference. This distinguishes Lonely Planet from other contemporary gay plays, which consider all of the above crucial to a gay sensibility. But for the purposes of this play's sensibility, the calculation works. By de-emphasizing sex as the central concern of a gay man's life and by not labeling Jody and Carl gay or homosexual, Dietz forces the audience to regard the two friends not as marginal members of society but as individuals ravaged by a universal health crisis.

In keeping with the Pope's tradition of meticulous attention to stagecraft, Carlos Asse has designed a lovely set for this production. Jody and Carl's friendship slowly, inexorably deepens as seamless set changes and Craig D. Ames's original music coaxes the action forward. And Jim Fulton's lighting and Jon M. Loflin's sound allow the men to transcend the map store's confines in the play's final, poignant moment.

Friends fill in as family in Lonely Planet, but in Sherry Glaser and Greg Howells's Family Secrets there's no mistaking who is kin. Glaser has returned to South Florida with her quintet of relations after enjoying major success with the production in New York. I may be the only theatergoer in the area who didn't catch her one-woman act when she first brought Family Secrets here in 1992. Back then every time I'd see the title I'd think, "I have my own family secrets A do I really need to see someone else's traipsed across the stage?" When I finally saw the show during its recent run at Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse (it opens at Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale this week, through April 9), the cleverly shaped monologues and astonishing re-creations of three generations of the Fisher family did strike chords of recognition, and satisfyingly so.

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