Capturing Truths


We Are a Masterpiece

Written by Gina Femia
Directed by DeLisa M. White
Presented by Retro Productions at the Theater at the 14th St. Y, NYC
April 7-21, 2018

In Gina Femia's We Are a Masterpiece, painter John (Ben Schnickel) muses that the purpose of his art is to try to capture (his) truth on a canvas, and one could easily describe Femia's new play as doing the same with a stage. We Are a Masterpiece is presented by Retro Productions, whose mission is to tell stories with a (primarily 20th-century) historical perspective, and this particular story focuses on the early days of the emerging AIDS crisis in the United States, taking place over about eight months in 1982-1983, with a few flashes forward to the present day. It explores the anxiety, condemnation, misinformation, grief, and altruism surrounding the emergence of the epidemic in a deeply human way.

We Are a Masterpiece begins with looking back on the myth that AIDS originated from contact with monkey blood and spread through male promiscuity. While we may regard ourselves as more enlightened over a quarter of a century later, reactions in the past several years to Ebola and infected health-care workers argue otherwise. Baseless rumor and speculation regarding AIDS ran similarly rampant in the early 1980s, and because Joan (Heather E. Cunningham) works as a nurse in Kalamazoo, she experiences that swirl of fear and ignorance in a particularly vivid way. Joan is caring for patients with this frighteningly mysterious new disease in a time when and in a city where the topic of her divorce is met by her former choir-mate Linda (Sara Thigpen) with a condescending "how modern." That divorce means that she is raising teenage daughter Lisa (Pilar Gonzalez) as a single parent, while her brother, Father Jerome (Matthew Trumbull), decries the watering down of the word "awesome" and the lack of strict adherence to "the rules" from the pulpit of the Catholic church that Joan once attended.

One of the avowed mottos of hospital janitor and self-help aficionado Tom (Ric Sechrest) is that fear makes people stupid, and the fact that Joan's fellow nurses Annie (Pilar Gonzalez) and Shelly (Sara Thigpen) attempt to avoid entering the rooms of patients with the "gay cancer" would seem to bear that out. We are introduced to a pair of gay couples whose lives the AIDS crisis forces to intersect with those rooms: Ryan (Chad Anthony Miller) and his partner (Sam Heldt) and the above-mentioned John and his partner Charles (also Sam Heldt). When Charles falls ill, his mother refuses to visit him, a position that Shelly finds perfectly defensible; meanwhile, patients' partners are not allowed to be told medical information because they are not family. At least, mourns Charles at one point, if this were a Biblical plague, like many are saying, there would be both a reason and somewhere to direct one's anger.

We see very early on, in a scene in which Lisa is burying the family dog because she feels that he would not have wanted to be cremated, that Joan's tough exterior is wrapped around a core of empathy and selflessness. As Joan's home and life become more and more intertwined with the lives and deaths of her AIDS patients and their partners, and her work life begins to impinge on her relationship with her daughter, she encounters condemnation and condescension from many quarters, including from her co-workers. Joan admirably stays her course, however, such as when she offers to let Ryan bury his partner—who, in an inverted parallel with the dog's assumed wishes, did not want to be cremated but was anyway, according to CDC protocol—on her land.

Despite the prevalence of death, the character in the play who undergoes the most change is Lisa, whose attitudinal shift results both from conflict with her mother and from close contact with the queer Other (Linda too comes around to a more accepting outlook, suggesting that hope for change is not confined only to the subsequent generation(s)). The emphasis on understanding runs throughout the play. Charles, who works in finance, says that he doesn't get John's art, but John, also estranged from his family, claims that there is nothing to get, that there are no answers in art. Jerome, in an ironic echo of this idea, says that one cannot expect answers from God either, and he speaks about how his home as child wasn't safe at the same time that he denounces those who are cut off from their families because of their sexual orientation. Queer individuals being disowned by their families remains an extensive problem, so We Are a Masterpiece is raising money for the True Colors Fund, which works to end homelessness for LGBTQ youth, through in-person cash or online donations.

The production, whose deliberate pacing, scope, and construction make for a Hamlet-length evening, boasts some fun period details, such as the nurses drinking TAB (although Tom's lunch of baby carrots is arguably anachronistic). Some of the most emotional parts of the play are the broader, non-character-specific reminders of how horribly people with AIDS, and gay men generally, were treated during the Reagan 80s, but the cast brings an intimate specificity to the individuals impacted by the AIDS crisis, and Cunningham's Joan makes us all hope that we would have acted as she did. The camaraderie between Cunningham and Thigpen as Joan and Shelly is lively and excellently observed, giving real heft to the later troubling of their relationship. Miller's portrayal of Ryan is touching and sensitive, whether he is asking to dig his partner's grave or discussing painting with Joan; and Sechrest's always friendly, upbeat Tom is consistent good-hearted comic relief.

Ryan says of an artist whose work hangs in his gallery that there is a certain kindness to his work, and that is true of We Are a Masterpiece as well. Even the characters who are on the wrong side of things don't come across as especially malicious. Tom asks who decides what qualifies as a masterpiece, and whether one person finding value and meaning in something might not be sufficient qualification. Femia ultimately suggests that we find that value in other people. Relatedly, Ryan, speaking in 2017, admonishes his audience (which is also the audience) that while it would be easy to forget what happened to so many promising individuals during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, it is vital that we and future generations remember, and We Are a Masterpiece makes a substantial contribution to that memorialization. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler