A young couple sits in a car, wondering about their future after finishing their studies. They were on a break from each other but have the option of living in the same city again, soon. One tries to make the other jealous; the other feels guilty about his lack of guilt. There have been many stories about the ravages of the AIDS epidemic among gay men, but only a few become iconic. In 1995, playwright Timothy Conigrave, through his posthumously published memoir Holding the Man, became the face of the crisis in Australia. Its popularity is likely due to focusing on the lives of its subjects, and not only the manner of their deaths. In Tommy Murphy’s 2006 stage adaptation, now in its Chicago premiere at Pride Films and Plays, we see their fifteen-year-long relationship from its beginning in high school. Conigrave did not spare his own mistakes in his account.
An Age of Youthful Optimism
Tim (Micah Kronlokken) realized he was gay as a child in the 70s, as part of the first generation to grow up amid wide awareness of gay peoples’ existence. He had friends but pined after the hunky footballer John Caleo (Jude Hansen). After several attempts at subtlety, Tim directly asked John to be his boyfriend and was surprised when John agreed. Tim’s parents weren’t thrilled and John’s were outright hostile, but they joined a gay community that was growing in its confidence and vivacity. (Tim was more into the scene than John). But there were a lot of new questions in the air: whether to continue the expectation of monogamy, gay men’s relationship with lesbians, how to make timelier art. By the time they were twenty-one, Tim had come to regard John as a bit of a ball-and-chain, which wasn’t entirely fair since John had sacrificed a lot more. Needing a subject for a play, Tim picked AIDS, figuring it was the sort of thing a gay person ought to care about. Little did he know how briefly his distanced perspective would last.
Pride Films and Plays Provides an Inexhaustible Ensemble
The story is told through two actors playing the leads and an ensemble of six dividing all the other roles. Some are silly; others are illustrative of a trend or done montage-style. A few moments are tranquil or infuriating. Director Michael D. Graham keeps things moving along, allowing the play to breathe when a romantic moment needs to develop and speed back up when Tim’s internal monologue becomes more manic. The Australian accents are a bit tough but not overdone. The diverse-bodied ensemble displays stupendous physical skill, transforming between clearly recognizable characters and at some points filling in for props or scenery. Holding the Man contains several frank discussions about sex as well as friendships and family. The actors shift between playfulness and celebreality with the assistance of Tim’s narration, which is that of an accomplished showman. Moments that seemed trivial in Act I take on dreadful importance in Act II, as Tim and John learn how relationships have been twisted, sundered, or strengthened by the unwitting spread of disease.
The Essence of a Shared Life
Kronlokken and Hansen both rise to the challenge of showing people maturing quickly. Hansen’s John is a very self-contained presence, and what we see of his family life suggests why. Shyer than his partner and less political, with an athlete’s sense of discipline, he is a more important anchor than Tim realizes. Kronlokken’s Tim is a gregarious presence, adventurous, charming, and good at getting what he wants from people. He has some heartbreaking moments when he realizes the full magnitude of his recklessness and his filled with shame and horror. His telling of his story feels like a confession. But it is one which communicates enough of two peoples’ lives to make them more than symbols. It also captured a bit of an era and fits well into the rest of the summer pride fest.
Editor’s Note: We would like to especially thank Pride Films and Plays for allowing our writer, Jacob Davis, to attend and review a Preview performance.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
John: Jude Hansen
Tim: Micah Kronlokken
Ensemble: Cody Dericks, Alisha Fabbi, Mikey Gray, Bryson David Hoff, Alexander McRae, Jordan Moore
Author or Original Book: Timothy Conigrave, Scenic Designer: Evan Frank, Director: Michael D. Graham, Playwright: Tommy Murphy, Dialect Coach; Saren Nofs-Snyder, Props Designer: Hillarie M. Shockley, Stage Manager: Michael Starcher, Costume Design: Cody Von Ruden, Sound Design: Isaac Mandel, Lighting Design: Becs Bartle, Asst. Stage Manager: Gabby Galvan
About the Author: Jacob Davis
Jacob Davis has lived in Chicago since 2014 when he started writing articles about theatre, opera, and dance for a number of review websites. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of modernist dramatic literature and criticism. While there, he interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham developing concepts for new dance pieces. His professional work includes developing the original jazz performance piece The Blues Ain’t a Color with Denise LaGrassa, which played at Theater Wit. He has also written promotional materials for theatre companies including Silk Road Rising.
Click here to find more Picture This Post articles by Jacob Davis.