Continuing on a memory-trip inspired by watching The Normal Heart…
Let me tell you about the best play I’ve ever seen.
It was 1991. I’d just finished my freshman year at George Washington University in DC, where I’d veered away from my intention to study political science to become a theater major.
I’d only really gotten involved in theater in my senior year of high school. I didn’t even really know our high school had a theater program until the spring musical of my junior year (a barn-burning West Side Story starring deadlightsgirl). In my senior year, I went to the audition for the fall production. I’d like to say I was inspired, but the honest truth was I had a crush on a girl, and she was auditioning. So I auditioned too. I didn’t really expect to get a part, but I did. The play was called Standard Safety, it was a workplace farce, and I got the role of the boss who was prone to waxing rhapsodic about the delights of his young, male employees. The sophomore who was initially cast as the object of my affection was forced to quit the play when his father found out “what kind of play it was.” I was surprised by that. I shouldn’t have been.
The spring musical was Little Shop of Horrors, and somehow I successfully lobbied the director to include scenes from the original Roger Corman movie – which I transcribed from a worn VHS tape. Even then, I was drawn to adaptation and mixing different media.
I went off to college and decided, on a whim, to audition for the student theater company’s fall play – Fahrenheit 451. Again, to my surprise, I got cast. So when spring rolled around, I decided “what the hell,” and auditioned for the mainstage show, Moliere’s Learned Ladies. And I got cast, in a small servant role. By now, I had the bug. By mid-way through freshman year, I officially became a theater major.
After the end of freshman year, I stayed in DC for the summer It was my first summer living on my own, outside the confines of school. I did a couple of shows – GWU had a summer production of Nancy Drew: Girl Detective, with professionals in the leads and students as understudies, and a suburban Virginia production of As You Like It. And I tried to see as much theater as possible. DC had (still has, I hear) a small but vibrant theater scene.
One of the lead actors from the Nancy Drew show – John Lescault – was appearing show in a small blackbox space in Georgetown, by a company called the Potomac Theater Project. PTPs goal was to provide challenging political work for free. They were running two different evenings of two one-acts in rotation. One of the plays was Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language. I don’t remember the other two.
The fourth piece was The Dog Plays, by Robert Chesley.
The Dog Plays were a triptych of short, two person scenes about living with – and dying from – AIDS. The production notes told us about Chesley, a playwright in San Francisco known for shows that were challenging, somewhat farcical and full of explicitly homoerotic language. These plays, we were told, were the first things he had written after getting diagnosed with AIDS. This production was in the summer of 1991 – Chesley had died the previous December.
The play was full of grief and longing and despair and the vision of a bright world that had just been glimpsed before being snatched away forever. Each of the three pieces features a character named Dog (all the characters have canine names) interacting with someone that he’s lost or is losing.
I say it’s the best play I’ve ever seen, but in truth I barely remember 2/3rds of it. The third piece in the triptych, “Hold” is a fantasy treatment of letting go of a lover who is dying in Dog’s arms. The second piece, “The Deploration of Rover,” I have no memory of at all.
But the first part, “Wild (Person Tense) Dog” was shattering.
Dog (James Patrick Sheehan) goes out to a club, but he’s depressed and lonely. So many people he knows are getting sick. On the way into the club, he’s accosted by a homeless person named Buck (John Lescault). Dog shoves a 20 dollar bill into Buck’s hand without looking at him. Inside the club, Dog and Buck deliver alternating monologues – Dog to the audience and Buck to Dog. Dog tells us about what life was like before the plague came, the community that has been lost. And Buck slowly tries to get Dog to recognize him as a former lover, someone who he was once intimate with, but who now is sick. And because he is sick, he can be ignored, not looked at, not SEEN. Instead, Dog gives him money so he doesn’t have to see.
The play ends with Dog finally opening his eyes and recognizing Buck. It’s heartbreaking, a howl into the darkness.
I’ve never forgotten it.
A few years later, I was beginning film school in Greensboro, North Carolina. While studying theater at GWU, I took as many film classes as I could; now I found myself in the opposite situation, studying film but taking a lot of classes in UNCG’s theater department. In my first year, I did an independent study that involved me directing a play. I chose “Wild (Person Tense) Dog.” I wasn’t trying to be controversial; I just really loved the play and wanted a chance to engage with it. But in hindsight, it was a breathtakingly loud choice. (For context, while I was in Greensboro, the traveling production of Angels in America was boycotted during their run down the road in Charlotte. This was also the place where I had a fellow student, very sincerely weep for me because I was going to Hell.)
To say the show ruffled some feathers would be an understatement. The head of the film department walked out in the middle, white as a sheet.
At some point over the years, my copy of the play was mislaid. I just went looking for one online, and came up mostly empty. Amazon has a used copy for $50. It’s a shame. (EDIT: Found one! Immediately purchased.)
One day soon, I would like to revisit these plays again. In the ensuing years, i’ve become fascinated with immersive theater, and I think there might be a way to do these shows in a site-specific or interactive way that could be interesting.
But mostly, I want to see if I can recapture a sliver of the sledgehammer power I felt when I first saw the show in 1991.
So after 23 years, let me say: Thank you, Robert Chesley. Thank you, Potomac Theater Project especially director Jim Petosa and actors James Patrick Sheehan (Dog) and John Lescault (Buck.)