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‘For good, for bad, forever’ at The Ringwald

By |2011-05-19T09:00:00-04:00May 19th, 2011|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

“Love! Valour! Compassion!” continues at The Ringwald through June 6. Photo: Colleen Scribner

For his prize-winning 1994 work “Love! Valour! Compassion!” playwright Terrence McNally borrowed a page from Anton Chekhov’s notebook. Very little actually happens in three acts; it’s all about character; it’s all about emotion. Though a period piece, the Who Wants Cake? production at the Ringwald Theatre in Ferndale demonstrates it is not a bit dated. McNally’s script transcends its milieu and might still be as timely in a century as “Uncle Vanya” is today.
The action takes place over three holiday weekends: Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. At a Dutchess County farmhouse two hours north of New York City, eight men work through their loves, hates and fears. The owner of the summer house, Gregory (Keith Allan Kalinowski), is a 43-year-old choreographer whose body is beginning to fail him just as he is working on his crowning achievement. He adores his younger lover of four years, Bobby (Matthew Turner Shelton), who is blind. Their guests for the weekends are, for the most part, connected to his dance company.
There’s Gregory’s business associates, Perry (Richard Payton) and Arthur (John Nowaczyk), a couple of 14 years; grown too familiar with one another, yet still in love. There’s John Jeckyll (Charles VanHoose), the ex-pat Brit and rehearsal pianist – bitter and pretentious as a theater critic. He’s accompanied by his summer obsession, Ramon (Vince Kelly), a hot young dancer with an uncontrolled libido. Finally, there is Buzz (Joe Plambeck), costume designer and maniacal lover of the musical theater. Buzz has AIDS, and is taunting Death with wisecracks and show tunes. They are joined later by John’s identical twin, James (VanHoose again, of course), as sweet as John is sour. “James the Good” is suffering in the advanced stages of AIDS.
“Love” is the operative word here. The themes of love emerging, love enduring, love betrayed are densely woven into McNally’s tapestry. Yet there’s an abiding sense of gloom – as grey as the rainy weather that plagues all three weekends. Each man contemplates the passage of time, the pain of growing old and the inevitability of death. This play was written at a time when AIDS was less controllable than at present, yet its themes and emotional turmoil still draw an audience in. We care for these guys, every last one of them.
Credit for that affection goes to director Keith Paul Medelis and an outstanding ensemble. The performances are dead-on, controlled, and absent of stereotype. Of special note, however, are Joe Plambeck and Charles VanHoose, both of whom masterfully handle the nuanced emotional layers in their respective roles.
Oh, by the way, have I mentioned the nudity? Have I caught your attention? I am suspicious of gimmicks in the arts, and a cynic might find full-frontal nudity gratuitous. That’s not the case here. I fall back on the definitions of author Larry Niven, who wrote that nudity is artistic, but naked means defenseless. It’s a little intimidating for audience and artist alike with exposure so up close and personal. The actors take on the challenge with an easy nonchalance. It’s not so much about naked bodies as it is naked emotions. Dare I say McNally has created an environment where his characters are comfortable letting it all hang out?

‘ Love! Valour! Compassion!’
Who Wants Cake? at The Ringwald, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Friday-Monday through June 6. $10-$20. 248-545-5545.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.