By BRUCE DENNILL
First planned as a 25th anniversary revival and then as a tribute after playwright Terrence McNally sadly passed away near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Lefra Productions take on the Tony Award-winning dramedy Love! Valour! Compassion! feels even more poignant than expected in a period of fluctuating lockdown restrictions, when being able to spend time together and enjoy the intimacies unveiled by long-term relationships is never a given.
Using clever, simple props – a giant cube of white blocks that can be dismantled and re-stacked to represent everything from beds to boats – the cast of seven (there are eight characters, but handily, two of them are twins) unpack a narrative woven through three weekends at a country house in New York State, where a group of long-term friends and a couple of relative newcomers, all gay, gather to relax, but also to delve into issues and ideas, love and despair, and joy and melancholy. If you enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s lovely film Peter’s Friends, we’re in similar territory here.
There are a range of personalities, from sweet and subtle to aggressive and uncertain, and the men’s proximity for these weekends means there is inevitable conflict, but just as inevitably, support and progress as predicaments are explored and philosophies expanded.
Written and first performed in the mid-Nineties, the play remains entirely current in its examinations of matters such as self-image, love, sexuality, acceptance and belonging. And though the characters employ a number of over-the-top tropes that might stereotypically be associated with proudly out gay men, their sexuality has relatively little to do with the emotional complexities they are expressing – those are universal, and almost every audience member is likely to recognise a part of themselves or a loved one in McNally’s writing.
With each character displaying at least one strong, stand-out quality – love, valour and compassion, yes, but also ambition, anger, insight and more – the actors have rich material with which to work. Best in class is Schoeman Smit as the effervescent, edgy Buzz, whose slow battle with AIDS is a constant spectre behind both his brashness and his often unexpected generosity of spirit. His performance is such that the actor is invisible, while the character – physically the smallest of the group – fills the space every time he’s on stage. The casting generally is good, with muscles and swagger on show in Boris Petrenko as Ramon, who likes swanning about in the nude, and hangdog thoughtfulness on offer from Glenn Swart as Gregory, the ageing choreographer at whose home the events play out.
If there is one minor niggle, it’s that the narrator, Perry (Mauritz Badenhorst), has perhaps the least convincing American accent – it’s more a quality of Badenhorst’s voice (he’s a fine singer) than poor training – meaning that the bubble of believability occasionally bursts after a scene that felt genuinely New York in its tone and attitude.
The show is fairly long, but if you’re engaged with the material – and any feeling person who has simultaneously loved and been angry with someone close to them will be – you’ll be intrigued to see how things play out. Without adding spoilers, it’s safe to say that the curtain comes down in a satisfying place: this is not a fairy story, but neither is it a tale of woe.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]