The Douglas Anderson Theatre Department opened Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet” on October 19, 2017 for a run of eight performances through October 27. DA’s production is the Florida premier.

The play was written by prolific playwright Steven Dietz (who wrote thirty-four plays during 1981 – 2015), and is set in the late 1980’s. It debuted in 1993, a decade after the recognition of the beginning of the AIDS crisis. A Wikipedia post from 2015 which identifies fourteen plays with HIV/AIDS as a major theme includes Dietz’s play. Among the most frequently staged are “Angels in America,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Rent.”

We have reviewed a number of plays staged in DA’s black box theatre and it is always exciting to see the configuration of the stage. Scenic designer Nolan O’Dell and student crews have rendered a “small map store on the oldest street in an unnamed American City” with engaging detail. Multiple maps are mounted to the right, above the checkout counter, while shelves on the left are filled with globes for customers who are interested in the entire world. Most of the action takes place in a seating area on a lower level; the flooring includes a colorfully conceived celestial map.

The shop is owned and run by Jody, a man in his thirties; his younger friend Carl is a frequent visitor. Although both are gay, they are best friends, not lovers, and they cherish this friendship. As Carl notes, finding lovers is easy, while finding friends is difficult.

Jody is introspective, brooding, and withdrawn. He makes excuses for not opening his shop to conduct business, and doesn’t want to venture outside. Later, we learn he has been tested for AIDS every six months in the past – but is now afraid to schedule a test.

Carl is Jody’s opposite, overactive, dramatic, and very funny at times. And he cares about Jody, urging him to keep his business open, and to return to participating in community life. He is evasive about his jobs, saying he works at times as an art restorer or an auto glass installer. He lives elsewhere and shows up at the shop at intervals with different tee shirts, which gives the audience an idea of the passing of time. During the first act, we noted that Jody wears the same sweater and trousers throughout, which we attributed to his depressed state.

Carl brings chairs into the shop, a mechanism for conveying the overwhelming devastation of the epidemic. He helps by cleaning the homes of AIDS victims who have died, but can’t bring himself to discard their favorite chairs. Soon the shop is cluttered with chairs; they are stacked everywhere. How many? Who knows – forty? – fifty?

Both characters speak directly to the audience from time to time to time, and we learn a great deal about their fears, challenges and coping mechanisms.  We’ll leave the ending for you to discover, in accordance with our practice of avoiding spoilers.

The play is double cast; each cast has four appearances. During the production we saw, the roles were filled by the “Moon Cast,” and portrayed brilliantly by seniors Mario Noto as Jody and Whit Hemphill as Carl. The “Star Cast” features Simon Thomas as Jody and Blake McClure as Carl.

“Lonely Planet” is directed by Michael Higgins, who chairs the Theatre Department. He worked with playwright Steven Dietz in a small Colorado theatre company many years ago, and has been with Douglas Anderson as a drama instructor since 1993.

The production crew included Michael Higgins (Director), Nolan O’Dell (Scenic Design), Geoff Moss (Technical Director, Light and Sound Design) Susan Peters (Scenic Charge Artist), Madison Kiernan (Stage Manager), and Hannah Freeman (Assistant Stage Manager)

This play revives a time filled with fear when many lost their lives to AIDS. And while progress has been made in containing the illness through education,  medications, and experimental therapies, it brings to our attention that the disease has not been eradicated. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 1 million people around the world died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016.

Douglas Anderson’s Performance Calendar for 2017 –2018 includes the musical comedy “CURTAINS” during November 16 –18, “ANTON IN SHOW BUSINESS” during February 1 – 9, and “PICNIC during April 12 – 19. For additional information, visit datheatreboosters.org or call the box office at 904-346-5620 ext.122.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.