Fort Worth — The “OPEN” sign is on the door at Amphibian Stage Productions, which begins its 20th anniversary season with a gentle and passionate production of the Steven Dietz play Lonely Planet, set in a small map store on “the oldest street” of an unnamed American city. It’s a story of unconditional, accepting friendship in difficult times, and of how human history—and progress—is often made far away from the public battlefields, with one small act of caring, generosity, and loyalty at a time.
And in a shift that reflects both our times and Amphibian’s steady interest in the social issues of our time, this play about the first deadly wave of the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and early ‘90s—most often cast with two male actors playing gay men—features two notable actors of color, M. Denise Lee and Jamal Gibran Sterling.
It’s fascinating to watch this talented pair do something very different from the big, blockbuster roles that earned them 2018 awards from the Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum (Lee for her Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage’s searing Ruined at Echo Theatre/Denise Lee Onstage; Sterling for his Jack Johnson-like boxer in Kitchen Dog Theater’s The Royale). Here they work on what seems a smaller scale…but is it? Lonely Planet is bigger than it looks—and it measures success and importance in ways that don’t match the world’s notions about these things. This is a story of two people stripping life to the essentials: finding human company, seeking hope, doing things that have meaning to them.
Jody (Lee) and Carl (Sterling) have been friends for years. Jody sells maps, “fixed objects” she likes because they make her feel the world is in order. Carl is the living, breathing opposite of that order—a pinball, a loose cannon, a guy who gleefully tells Jody something different every time he’s asked “what he does” for a living. Jody’s a quiet sort, and Carl a chatterbox about everything in this world. (Boring people, supernatural dishware, “Father Dick” Nixon, Edward Hopper, and the “grassy knoll” are all on his radar.)
But something’s been changing these past months. Carl is a man on a mission. He’s become a collector of chairs, and to Jody’s exasperation, Carl brings them to her shop—first one, then in multiples impossible to ignore, crowding their physical and emotional space. Jody wants the facts—but Carl tells her he can’t play their longstanding “truth” game just yet: “I’d like to lie a little longer.” And like the good friend she is, Jody accepts…and waits.
Slowly, we come to know who the chairs represent, and why Carl can’t just let them just “go to Goodwill.” And we begin to see why he leaves them with Jody, who has stopped going out or going home—living day and night inside her shop.
CARL: This is our neighborhood, Jody. You can’t hide from it…You can’t just deny it.
Director William Earl Ray weaves stage action and talk into a balanced whole as we move toward the burning question: Will Jody go out to be “tested” for the disease that’s rocking their community? Carl’s tall tales alone could fill the hours—but there are phones to answer, chairs to carry, a swashbuckling fencing match, and still time left over to ponder Jody’s dreams, the wildly varied visions we call “maps”—and the miracle of friendship. Carl says he’s happy that in all their years together, he and Jody didn’t fall in love.
CARL: Lovers are easy, friends are hard. The right combination of small talk and clothing will land you a lover. Friends, though, are a mystery.
Sterling’s Carl is hyper-imaginative, wired, yet straight-in-the-eyes honest. He’s a wild card and a trickster of sorts, but these contradictions meld into something deeper as we sense his loving intentions. Carl grieves over a lost childhood friend and others, but refuses to be overwhelmed by the immensity of the crisis they face. Every day, he says, he is trying to find “the worth of me” in small moments of usefulness, not “grand actions.” And getting Jody out the door—and tested—would be one of the ultimate moments of Carl’s life.
Lee’s Jody is self-contained, even a bit gruff at first glance, but the forbearing, amused looks she sends Carl’s way tell a different story. Carl drives her nuts, but she admits he’s “the little brother I never wanted to have.” Who knows what she might be willing to do for him?
Jody is an eclectic lifelong learner: Ionesco’s The Chairs is her favorite absurdist play, but its connection to this play seems random: Jody and Carl communicate more fully than anyone—even the chairs—in The Chairs. Lee chews toothpicks and hums the play’s recurring background song, Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” as sung by Nina Simone (nice sound by David Lanza)—but only comes tantalizingly close to raising her well-known voice in song. It’s a beautifully restrained performance, down to her hunched shoulders as she puts on a coat…and thinks hard about going out to face her fears.
Seancolin Hankins’ set design for Jody’s shop abounds in globes, maps, and retail detail, but takes on a golden glow as we see it first under Adam Chamberlin’s lights—which glow again in the play’s last moments. Amber Jones’ costumes are just right for the characters very different personalities, most particularly the upbeat sky-blue track suit Carl wears in the first act. And director Ray, who saw this play in one of its earliest versions in Seattle, has brought all together in a true and thoughtful update of one of Dietz’ best-known works.
As AIDS/HIV continues to menace our world—with increasingly devastating inroads into the African-American and Latinx communities here in the U.S.—Dietz’ quiet play of a quarter-century ago can still move hearts and inspire action. Amphibian should be doubly happy to be opening with a show of artistic tenderness and power—and one that may spark discussion, move someone to go for a test—and open doors for organizations who are, as Carl might say, “out there” in the neighborhoods every day.