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Drawing more out of ‘Jerker’

Special to The Times

IT is a sweaty afternoon in the tiny Silver Lake theater where director Michael Kearns is rehearsing actors Dean Howell and Joe Gill. The concentration is intense on the small stage as the performers reenact a phone call between two lonely men in 1985 San Francisco.

Looking outward but never at each other, they traverse fantasy and reality, trying desperately to connect across the void. Some moments are erotic, others emotionally fraught. Yet it is all subject to scrutiny, as Kearns seeks to draw out the details and nuances that will make the fictional relationship seem real.

“Do you think he specifically called while you were at work, so he could get a machine?” Kearns asks. “When do you stop working? In ’85, people worked right up until the end.”

The end, in this context, means death from complications due to AIDS. And the play these men are rehearsing, Robert Chesley’s “Jerker, or the Helping Hand,” is arguably one of the most provocative dramas ever to grapple with that topic. It is also one of the most enduring. The 20th anniversary staging of “Jerker” will be performed at Highways next Friday and Saturday and at Moving Arts the following two weekends.

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Kearns staged the play’s 1986 world premiere at Los Angeles’ Celebration Theatre. Shortly after that, the play was thrown into the national spotlight -- and controversy -- when radio station KPFK-FM aired a late-night broadcast of excerpts of the performance. That provoked a fundamentalist who complained to the Federal Communications Commission.

Kearns himself was tested for the AIDS virus in 1989 and, in the wake of actor Brad Davis’ death in 1991, announced in an NBC interview that he was HIV-positive.

And so for Kearns, the 20th anniversary of “Jerker” is as much a personal landmark as one for the activist theater with which he has long been closely tied. “I wanted to do the 20th anniversary production because I can,” says the Goodman Theatre-trained actor-writer-director, who also performed with original cast member David Stebbins in 1988.

“When I did the first production in 1986, there was no way that I thought I’d direct a 10th-year anniversary and, although somewhat more optimistic, part of me didn’t think I’d be around to direct the 20th,” Kearns continues. “As I face the third round, it is with fresh sadness, respect and excitement.”

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By 1996, when Kearns directed a 10th anniversary production of the play at Highways and later in San Francisco, he was the sole survivor of the original creative team -- actors Stebbins and Joe Fraser as well as Chesley had died from AIDS complications. “Those two productions bookend so much pain and hope, sorrow and joy,” he says. “Life, like the play, seems to get more intense.”

The 20th anniversary production of “Jerker” coincides with the release by Broadway Play Publishing of “Plays by Robert Chesley.” Chesley, who died at age 47 in 1990, was a composer, theater critic and playwright, whose 1984 drama “Night Sweat” is widely considered the first full-length play about AIDS. Known for the intensity and poeticism of his writing as well as its unapologetic treatment of gay themes and issues, Chesley wrote nine other full-length plays and 21 one-acts, including “Jerker.”

Those who have long admired the late writer’s work hope for a newfound recognition.

Mark Thompson, for example, was a writer for and cultural affairs editor and senior editor of the national gay newsmagazine the Advocate from 1975 to 1994. Living in San Francisco during the early ‘80s, as did Chesley, he saw many of the era’s most politically charged plays.

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“Robert Chesley was one of the most significant gay playwrights of his time,” says Thompson, who has written five books on gay history and culture. “ ‘Jerker’ remains to this day one of the most important pieces of gay theater ever created.”

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Raunch yields to tragedy

THE story of “Jerker” unfolds in a series of 20 phone calls -- some of which include phone sex -- between a Vietnam vet named J.R. (Gill) and another man known only as Bert (Howell). Over the course of these calls, the relationship expands into friendship and love.

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Reviewing the 1988 production, then-Times critic Dan Sullivan wrote: “I’ve never seen a play that went from the near-pornographic to the tragic, but ‘Jerker’ achieves it.”

“It is in-your-face and raunchy, and of course we get titillated by that,” says Howell. “But then it turns around and punches you in the stomach with its depth and sensitivity and the love between the two characters.”

A key to the work’s durability may be its artful use of language. “In some respects, the title may be the most important words the playwright composes,” says Kearns, himself the author of numerous solo shows, plays and books. “What does ‘Jerker’ mean? Well, it certainly carries the sexual connotation of masturbation. But it is also, quite deliberately, a tear-jerker. That is what is so compelling about the play and remains so: It is outrageously sexual but just as outrageously romantic, even sentimental.”

“Jerker” mentions AIDS directly much less than many so-called AIDS plays. And while it was certainly not the only play of its day to deal with the topic, it was part of an early, radical wave.

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“When nobody else was talking about it, live theater was where the artists really started to address the epidemic back in the early ‘80s, and this play was one of the first,” Howell says. “This wasn’t just a play, it was part of a collective finding its voice.”

Subsequently, the theater produced a wide variety of plays dealing both directly and indirectly with AIDS, such as the 1985 dramas “As Is” and “The Normal Heart,” the William Finn-James Lapine musical “Falsettos” and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Then too there are the plays and performance art of such varied artists as Reza Abdoh, James Carroll Pickett, Ron Athey, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas and countless others.

Many of the works created in the ‘80s and ‘90s, however, have fallen by the theatrical wayside. “Works like Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart,’ while important to its day, are not aging as well because they are polemical,” Thompson says. “And impassioned politics, as we know, does not usually make for enduring art.”

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Emphasizing the romance

IN the past, “Jerker” has typically been staged in overtly sexual ways, including with beds, nudity and suggestive physicalization. But Kearns is taking a different approach. “I have seriously rethought the production for this incarnation,” he says. “In this production, it’s the tear-jerker aspect that will dominate the proceedings, whereas in both the other productions, it was the sexual aspect.

“The actors will be fully clothed. In fact, it will be staged almost like a radio play, emphasizing the gorgeous language. After all, the characters experience each other aurally and, in this production, the audience will experience them more aurally than visually.”

This, he says, should bring out the play’s continued value. “I always feel a responsibility to the audience: I want them to see themselves reflected,” says Kearns. “And the reflection I’m hoping to bounce back is different in 2006 than it was in 1986.”

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While still set in 1985, this 20th anniversary staging may also elucidate the play’s unintended topicality. Says Gill: “My character, J.R., says: ‘I was in Vietnam.... I learned what immoral means. And that’s why nobody, but nobody, tells me I’m immoral if I love a man.’ And while the government and society are preoccupied with gay marriage as opposed to the death of Americans in Iraq, ‘Jerker’s’ message will still ring loud.”

But “Jerker” is not ultimately a “message” play, it is a human play. “There is anger, sadness and even rage but a warm humanity and resiliency of spirit expressed in Robert’s writing,” says Thompson. “I think audiences will be seeing this piece another 50 years from now with the same emotional involvement as they did when it first appeared -- and as they still do today.”

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‘Jerker’

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Where: Highways Gallery and Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Price: $20

Contact: (310) 315-1459 or www.highwaysperformance.org

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Also

Where: Moving Arts, 1822 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 18 and 19, 25 and 26

Price: $20

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Contact: (323) 856-6168


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