Lonely Planet, a Play About HIV and Friendship, Still Resonates

Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath in Lonely Planet
Carol Rosegg

When we think of HIV and AIDS-related theater, there are a handful of famous plays that come to mind: Angels in America, RENT, The Normal Heart, and As Is. Today, these plays tend to offer historic memories of those tragic, dark days and not necessarily be relevant to what is happening in the modern HIV landscape. In contrast to those plays is the two-act, two-character play, Lonely Planet.

Lonely Planet was written in the early '90s by playwright Steven Dietz, in the midst of the AIDS pandemic. It's a piece that was somewhat unconsidered when it was first produced, in comparison with the heavyweights mentioned above.

However, the play was recently revived off-Broadway in a marvelous and moving production by the Keen Company and starred the incredible talents of Broadway actors Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath.

The plot takes place in "a small map store on the oldest street in an American city." It concerns two gay best friends, Jody and Carl, each struggling with the fear and trauma of their friends dying from this horrible virus, of which not much is known. Carl deals with the crisis with flamboyancy and humor and by taking on the task of cleaning up AIDS patients' homes. Not wanting to let the memory of these fallen friends go, Carl collects a chair from each casualty, heaping them together at his friend's store. Jody deals (or rather doesn't deal) with the situation by shutting himself up in his map store, avoiding friends, avoiding being tested, and avoiding leaving the safety of his shop.

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"It's a story first of all about friendship," director Jonathan Silverstein told TheBody.com. "This is a story about friends in a time of crisis. I feel now that we're in a time of crisis, in many ways, politically, and it resonated to me -- the way that the characters are dealing with things and how important friendship is."

Both actors and the director in the Keen Company production lived through the dark days of the AIDS crisis and were able to bring their experiences to the play. "The notion of all your friends passing away and how important friendship became is something that both actors understood very well," Silverstein said.

The fear that the characters deal with is something that many people still grapple with today, especially when it comes to HIV and AIDS. Those issues that were on everyone's mind 30 years ago are congruous today.

"What was interesting to find out in rehearsals, was that one of the actors actually, for a long time, had not been tested [for HIV]. He kind of had the same fear as Jody," Silverstein said. "That was an interesting conversation that we had over and over again."

Silverstein said that the actor felt a lot of guilt because all his friends were getting tested, which mirrored the complex feelings that occur in the play. Those feelings of guilt and shame and fear are things people still go through today and can certainly make one want to stay shut off from the world.

Arnie Burton and Matt McGrath
Carol Rosegg

"It's the sort of thing that really made me feel, like ... the denial that Jody is going through, and his holing himself up, is something I could really relate to," said Silverstein. "Right now, over the past year, sometimes you just don't want to deal with all the deluge of news. You can shut yourself off from it, and say that 'yeah, yeah, everything's fine', rather than dealing with the exact issue at hand."

By the end of the play, Jody does go and get tested, and he gets the news that he is negative. Carl, however, is positive and not in good health, so the play ends with Jody facing everything he was afraid of and avoiding, sitting in a chair in his map store. His friend is ill and fading.

Although the play has a melancholy ending, the play ultimately has a hopeful message: We don't have to go through the challenges of this life alone. Silverstein said: "This play shows two friends really coming up against a pretty big obstacle, and how they can do their best not only for themselves, but by each other. Friendship is something that can find people together in really trying times."

He concluded, "The play shows characters from two very extreme points of view. Hopefully through meeting in the middle, we come to understand a little more about humanity."