The Keen Company’s revival of Steven Dietz’s Lonely Planet plays like a thematic mashup between Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They explore the complexly nuanced relationships between storytelling, companionship, and dealing with life’s hard truths.
Much like George and Martha, the characters in this 1993 two-hander regale each other with an indeterminate mix of fanciful and factual stories as a coping mechanism to deal with an unbearably depressing elephant in the room: the AIDs epidemic, which is intentionally not specifically named but clearly indicated. Their refusal to mention the actual disease emphasizes their unwillingness to reckon with the truth of what’s devastating their community outside the doors of their map shop.
The fact that the entirety of the play is set inside this store calls to mind Beckett’s masterpiece. In the same way Didi and Gogo refuse to leave the stage for fear of facing the truth of a God(ot)-less world, so too do these merchants of cartography view the world beyond their controlled domain as a dangerously tragic realm worth avoiding.
Instead, they entertainingly distract themselves by creating comic tales. At first these yarns seem far-removed from the reminders of death waiting just past the doors. But eventually, we come to realize that they’re in fact continuations of lives cut short. By verbally reenacting these fictional versions of real people’s existences, the two characters rely on their companionship to ultimately accept that they can no longer ignore the troubles of the world.
Though the stories initially feel like a means of escape, they ultimately facilitate a much-needed return to reality. And that’s the role that all socially-conscious art like Lonely Planet can serve for society. Yes, audiences often try to temporarily walk away from the drama of their own lives by walking into a theatre, but — just like the dramatic and dramatically fabricated stories generated in the map shop — the drama of the stage can bring viewers back to reality with a newfound understanding of how to handle it.
Plus, just like the two men’s tales, stories can also record for posterity the forgotten souls of the departed. Dietz draws many comparisons between maps and stories throughout, most explicitly in monologues delivered directly to the audience. Though this dramaturgical device may irk some who’d prefer more complex layering, they serve as Brechtian reminders that we’re indeed watching a story. Like stories, maps often change the truth to more easily achieve a goal. Nevertheless, they still record a past truth, which makes them worthwhile.
This is the second time recently that I’ve written about a piece of art dealing with AIDs. And in only a matter of months, I’ll be covering the Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, perhaps THE seminal text about AIDs. Why are so many unrelated enterprises revisiting this tragedy right now?
I’d like to think that artists realize we’re living in an era when far too much of this country believes that America should ignore the rest of the world’s problems (even if we helped create them). “America First,” as some nitwit in the White House likes to proclaim. He often cites Ronald Reagan as his favorite past President (we all know Trump is now Trump’s favorite President), even though his administration has the blood of fallen members of the gay community on its hands from politicians egregiously turning a blind eye to American citizens struggling through AIDs.
Contrary to Trump’s opinion, America was not great back then. To truly make the country great again, we must learn from the mistakes of our past and never refuse to come to the aid of our fellow humans suffering. Since most of us thankfully agree that the United States’ treatment of its own was abhorrent during the AIDs crisis, digging up these old lessons again is the least contentious way to make a political point today.