“On December 22,1986, finding I was body positive, I set myself a target: I would disclose my secret and survive Margaret Thatcher. I did. Now I have set my sights on the millennium and a world where we are all equal.”
– Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk
According to the stats for this site, one of my most-read entries is one called “Just Another Tuesday”. It’s my 2012 piece in which I recount where I was on 9/11 and reflect on how I perceive the world to have changed in the decade-plus since. We’ve already seen the birth of a generation that knows of events like 9/11, Columbine, and the Rodney King riots, but this younger generation will never connect to them the way those of my generation do. Similarly, I can only empathize so much with my parents’ recollections on the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and JFK. So too are my parents removed from my grand- and great-grandparents’ memories of Pearl Harbor, the Hindenburg, and the Titanic.
No matter how visceral these events were to those who lived through them, time marches ever onward. Eventually, these world-changing events have no more weight to the average person than the Fall of Rome, the Burning of London, or the Atlantic Slave Trade (and that last one still leaves scars on this side of the Atlantic).
So too does it seem to be with the AIDS crisis. Though neither the disease nor the HIV virus have been eradicated, innovations in treatment and medication have no longer made the indisputable death sentence it was in the ‘80s. These days, one can live a considerably long time. But that sense of security came at the cost of thousands of lives, and along with security comes the risk of falling into complacency. Playwright Tim Pickney lived through the height of the epidemic. His new play – making its world premiere at the New Conservatory – is his loving tribute to those whose names (and how they died) run the risk of being lost forever.
Kevin was there from the beginning. He was there when his friends died from a plague that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t even acknowledge, and he was there when his late partner Eric founded an organization for the explicit purpose of fighting the disease. But now it’s 2005 and Kevin doesn’t know where to be. Though all of his longtime friends like Susan and Marcus have, to put it delicately, gotten lives, Kevin remains adrift.
But Kevin’s mind develops a new focus when he revisits Eric’s old organization. On the eve of an anniversary, the now-glossy organization his hold a gala in its own honor… but there will be no mention of Eric. As Kevin fights to get the late co-founder his proper due, he and his friends reflect on how far they’ve come and how easy it is repeat mistakes they don’t learn from.
If there’s one major flaw in Pickney’s otherwise well-written script, it’s that the dialogue can be overly expository at times. As a playwright myself, I often dread falling into this trap, but you’ve got to get out years of backstory somehow. Still, the best dialogue exchanges are those that don’t sound as if they’re practiced biographies during awards speeches (a topic that comes up within the story itself).
On the plus side, the majority of the dialogue is banter that flows naturally and has a great deal of personality. So too are the characters given believable dimension that keep them from falling into caricature. When even Byron – a pompous executive with the organization whom you spend most of the play wishing would be bludgeoned – gets a human portrayal with an excess of backstory, it’s the mark of a writer allows their characters to be more than someone making plot beats. These moments stand in wonderful contrast to the more blatant exposition dumps.
The cast are all able in their roles. Much of the story falls on the shoulders of Scott Cox as Kevin. He’s well enough with the snappy banter, but tends to be a bit too melodramatic during long speeches. Will Giammona and Desiree Rogers do well enough as Marcus and Susan, respectively, but there are times where they seem to not be sure of their characters; as is the dialogue they’re reciting isn’t what they’re feeling. Served better are Matt Weimer as Christopher – Eric’s partner at the time of his death, now rich benefactor to the organization – and J. Conrad Frank as the obnoxious Byron – so easy to hate because he’s so believable.
Dennis Lickteig’s direction is fine enough, but it’s hard to know what to make of Devin Kasper’s set? With its upstage triangles that look like Venetian blinds, I first thought that they were meant to evoke the New Wave design of the 1980s. But the story takes place in 2005, so the design just comes off as an odd stylish choice. Still the sound design by Theodore Hulsker and lights by Mazz Kurzunski do well as bringing the frequently-adjusted set to life.
It’s often been said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. This is emphasized when one of our veteran characters suddenly realized that they will have to be tested. As many STIs once thought to be “under control” are now seeing a frightening rise in numbers, it would be a shame for those of use who lived through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis to think that all of the education and activism was in vain. Still at Risk is a story about the danger that comes with forgetting. It isn’t a perfect story by any means, but it’s a fine example of someone living through the worst and not wanting to see mistakes repeated.
Still at Risk is scheduled to run until the 25th of February in the Walker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.