'Love! Valour! Compassion' is worth a little discomfort

For the News-DemocratJune 16, 2014 

A brave and fearless cast presents Terrence McNally's ground-breaking 1994 play, "Love! Valour! Compassion!," as a bold statement during Pride Month. It's raw, real, very funny and touching.

Like all art that matters, this unapologetically gay comedy-drama will make some people uncomfortable and will make others think.

Stray Dog Theatre's artistic director Gary F. Bell, who directed, strived for authenticity, presenting the interaction of eight gay men gathered at a remote lake house one summer.

He told the audience that this Tony-winning play, applauded for its honesty, was as important as "The Normal Heart." Twenty years ago, the world was a very different place.

Soul-searching and squabbling, they open themselves up to shed light on the human experience. By being frank about their lives and loves in the gay community, the play shows us people are just people, trying to get by in a cold cruel world. The AIDS crisis, a constant concern back then, is reflected in two characters.

Bell has staged it well in the Tower Grove Abbey's friendly confines. Rob Lippert's effective set allows us to visualize being both outdoors and inside, with a beautiful scenic backdrop, and different levels of steps conveying rooms. Tyler Duenow's thoughtful lighting reflects times of the day and the season.

The vignettes take place over the three holiday weekends of the summer -- Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day -- in Duchess County, two hours outside New York City. The guys canoe, play tennis, and swim -- some taking off their clothes to skinny-dip. Occasionally, there is a flashback.

This production isn't without hiccups. It is challenging and, with three acts, there is much touchy-feely dialogue to master. The cast was finding its rhythms, being deliberate, its second night, and well, the pace is languid.

However, the focused ensemble is fully committed to getting it right, allowing themselves to be vulnerable and baring their souls.

David Wassilak's dual role as twin brothers, the darker John and the sweeter James Jeckyll, is one of the tour-de-force performances of the year. He is masterful at differentiating their personalities and mannerisms.

In his flamboyant local debut, Patrick Kelly impressed as a force of nature, portraying the hilarious costume designer Buzz, a role originated indelibly by Nathan Lane, apron and all.

McNally, whose sharp wit is reflected in his caustic and revealing dialogue, has crafted the best musical theater references not in "Glee" or Tony host Neil Patrick Harris' opening songs, for Buzz.

A young Chris Tipp is a gorgeous guy who must gracefully be naked most of the piece, and when he isn't, plays a hedonistic jerk -- dancer Ramon, who comes with John but puts moves on the host's beau, the blind Bobby (Zach Wachtel), the blandest character of all.

In quite a departure from previous hillbilly or fluffier comic characters, Zach Stefaniak is strong as the famous choreographer Gregory, the welcoming host at several crossroads. He is confronted with infidelity, career creative block, and the inevitable realization that his body can no longer be counted on to dance at the highest professional level.

Comfortably and confidently, Jon Hey and Steve Peirick portray Arthur and Perry, a pragmatic yuppie couple who have been together 14 years, but have their flaws.

"Love! Valour! Compassion!" may take you out of your comfort zone. It's a worthy journey.

"Love! Valour! Compassion!"

Who: Stray Dog Theatre

Where: 2336 Tennessee, St. Louis

When: Thursday through Saturday now through June 28

Tickets: www.straydogtheatre.org; 314-865-1995

For mature audiences

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