Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Paul Goyette.
There are many excellent plays about the AIDS crisis of the 80s. Offhand, Angels in America, Rent, The Normal Heart, The Lonely Planet and As Is spring to mind. Holding the Man, enjoying its Chicago premiere at Pride Arts and Films, aspires to be another. It certainly has the pedigree. Based on a beloved Australian memoir of the same title by Timothy Conigrave and opening with a record-breaking run in Sydney, Holding the Man tells the true story of Conigrave’s relationship with his fifteen-year partner John, which began in grade school and survived parental resistance, separation, and other obstacles before finally succumbing to AIDS.
I have not read the original book, but I understand that Tommy Murphy’s stage adaptation is extremely faithful to it. I imagine, therefore, that Tim Conigrave was very hard on himself in the memoir, as in the stage version he simply doesn’t come across as all that likable. Played honestly and realistically by Micah Kronlokken from age nine into his thirties, Tim as a boy is sweet and pretty much adorable in his desire for another boy in his class, John (the likable Jude Hansen). After winning him, however, though the scenes with the two young men still have that same sweetness, Tim’s character devolves through a series of affairs with random men and even mutual friends as he enthusiastically takes part in the partner-hopping thrill of being gay in the 80s. Meanwhile, John is completely monogamous, unaware of his partner’s philandering, until Tim proposes a trial separation. We do not get to know John anywhere near as deeply as we do Tim, odd for what is essentially a play about two people supported by an ensemble. The reason apparently is that Conigrave blamed himself for John’s death and saw him as someone who could do no wrong, a characterization that may or may not have been accurate but does not lead to good drama.
Holding the Man is essentially two plays. In the first, a comedy, we see the two boys meeting and becoming friends and then partners. With the aid of a whip-smart ensemble consisting of Cody Dericks, Alisha Fabbi, Mikey Gray, Bryson David Hoff, Alexander McRae, and Jordan Moore, director Michael Graham takes us through the cute early part of their relationship, which angers both sets of parents, though it is (oddly) completely accepted by their group of friends. In fact, one of the longest scenes in the play has Tim telling them about it. No one thinks it at all strange, and the whole scene ends with mutual masturbation at a sleepover. That scene is also notable for being one of the few scenes in the first half of this play to be more than a few minutes long: most of Act One, in fact, plays like the author had ADD, jumping from moment to moment so kinetically that it actually seems at times as if the scenery and costume changes take as long as the scenes themselves. (Graham may have tried to find a way to curb this tendency, but too often the spaces between scenes feel wide indeed.) Act One is certainly very funny, though towards its end Tim’s affairs (and a throwaway mention of “gay cancer”) alert us that Act Two will not be. It isn’t.
Act Two is almost a separate play, a nearly relentless dive into the horrific world of AIDS as it was in the beginning: a drawn-out death sentence. Graham allows himself some strong directorial moments in this act, including a scene that begins somewhat realistically at an acting class (Tim is an aspiring actor) and devolves into chaos within his mind that bends time and place almost belligerently while Tim starts to realize what is happening to him and John. Another lovely moment involves John’s death, staged with Hansen standing on a balcony apart from Tim, his family, and his dying “body.” (It isn’t really a spoiler to say he dies; that is, after all, what inspired the play.) With many much slower scenes allowing us to grab hold of their emotion, Act Two in general works better than Act One, which might have benefitted from trimming. It still stops for costume changes, but here they seem mostly validated by circumstances.
I really want to like this play. It’s a true story about an important subject and it is well-acted. But with the first act not slowing down long enough to get inside of anyone but Tim, we don’t actually get to know the man about whom we will be asked to care the most, John. Other than an aspiring chiropractor and a one-time athlete, who is he? Because the play is told from Tim’s POV, the perspective of John’s longtime lover, we should know more, but we don’t. There is great sadness at the death, of course; it is a very powerful moment. But how much more powerful might it have been had Murphy been able to give us a character we really knew before killing him off? We can never know. All we know for certain is that Holding the Man, though it endears itself to us on several occasions, could have been stronger. It does not reach the level of the pantheon of AIDS plays to which it aspires.
Holding the Man is a Pride Films and Plays production now playing at the Broadway Theatre of Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, until August 26 (in repertory with Hurricane Damage). Performance times vary; check the website at Pride Films and Plays for schedule of locations and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.