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Unlikely Friendship Makes Man’s Last Days a Growing Experience

<i> T.H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for Calendar</i>

Nobody wants to die alone. Well, maybe Andrew does. He’s an ex-dancer, he’s gay and he’s very bitter. Andrew has AIDS.

When an unprepossessing clerk named Francis volunteers as a hospital “buddy” and is given Andrew as his first assignment, he’s very unsure of himself--especially after meeting Andrew. Andrew is angry and caustic. They don’t hit it off at all.

They meet on the first of “seven sundays” chosen by playwright michael scott reed out of the months during which Francis doggedly tries to make something of Andrew’s last days. (Lower-case spellings are the author’s preference.) Their story is not so much about acquired immune deficiency syndrome--the disease is never mentioned in the play--but about two human beings struggling through trauma and, in the process, forging an unlikely friendship.

Opening Monday at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40, the production is directed by Bruce Gray, familiar to Los Angeles theatergoers for his award-winning productions “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” among many others. Gray will soon be seen as an actor in the miniseries “Sinatra” and as Alaska’s then-Gov. Steve Cowper in the BBC-HBO production, “The Exxon Valdez Story.”

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The cast includes Michelle Manning as the nurse who tends Andrew between Sundays, Andre Barron as Andrew, and Joe Dahman as Francis, a role he created in the original Los Angeles production in 1988.

Dahman went to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland with “seven sundays,” and has appeared off-Broadway in New York and in regional theater here, including at the South Coast Repertory. But life upon the wicked stage, he explains, “was not going to bring home the bacon.” In 1990 he went back to school, studying nursing. And that background provides technical expertise for the play.

When Barron, who is also producing, contacted Dahman about doing “seven sundays” again, Dahman, who is still a member of Theatre 40, says he “jumped at the chance. I was dying to get back on stage.

“I told myself I would have to approach this as a totally new project. The previous experience would definitely help, but this was a new director with an entirely new outlook. It was going to be a different thing, and it has been.”

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Barron, who has been seen as an actor locally in a number of productions, including the world premiere of “Losing It in Cross Plains” and “Medal of Honor Rag,” also with Gray directing, had been looking for a project for Theatre 40’s early week slot. Gray didn’t like the first one Barron took to him. Barron kept on looking.

“It took me several months to find the script of ‘seven sundays,’ because it’s not published,” he says. “I searched, because it’s very relevant to what’s going on. You have this automatic feeling about the piece, because it speaks out very strongly.” Gray told Barron he read it with tears in his eyes, and agreed to do it.

“From the very beginning,” Barron says, “I felt a real responsibility, being part of this generation. But the play is very personal. I became very involved in it. We wanted to create a theater piece for today’s society, as opposed to doing another Neil Simon play. It’s been a journey of so many creative people coming forward and helping, becoming involved, because it’s something they really believe in.”

Gray had not seen the first local production, but feels that this revival is necessary. “It isn’t dated at all,” he says. “And it’s a great vehicle for two actors, to go through this great journey they go through--death, life, relationship, their past and their future. It’s a play that deals frankly with gay men in an AIDS situation.”

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He refers to other plays dealing with the subject, which have been successful, but usually aimed at a gay target audience, as “preaching to the already converted.”

“Our audiences come from all over,” he says, “but we also have a very specific audience here in Beverly Hills, and I thought it was important to bring this subject matter to this audience. They’re great theatergoers, but I don’t know if they’ve been exposed. I think it’s our duty and obligation to keep our audiences informed about what’s currently going on in the theater.”

“seven sundays” is not a speech from a soapbox. It tells a human story that illuminates a problem instead of proclaiming it. Gray says both characters in the play change through having known each other.

“I know it’s an odd comparison, but Richard II starts off as a foolish king with lots of power, and ends up a wise man with no power. That happens to Andrew here. He starts out as a stupid chorus boy, who’s oversexed and running around, and living at the surface of life.

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“Because of this situation and his interaction with the other guy, he grows in stature. He is a big man when he dies. What happens to the other character is big as well. He comes out a stronger, clearer, more forceful person. It’s that journey that interests me.”

If Andrew had not gotten sick, Dahman says, “these two would not, under any other circumstances, become friends. But out of this darkness comes a very beautiful friendship. And humor is the building block for that.”

Besides the humor and the heartbreak, the play has another job to perform, according to Barron. “It tears down a lot of myths, and fears, and preconceived ideas of what people think it is like to have AIDS. In ‘seven sundays’ you see people living and laughing and loving, evolving and growing. It’s about two people who have the willingness to eventually show up for experience, which is what we’re all here for anyway.”

“seven sundays,” Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Plays at 8 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays through June 24. Tickets $10. For reservations or information, call (213) 466-1767.

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