Playwright: Tommy Murphy; adapted from a memoir by Timothy Conigrave
At: The Broadway, Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 866-811-4111 or 773-857-0222; pridefilmsandplays.com; $20-$30. Runs through: Aug. 26
Portraits of the early days of the AIDS epidemic still evoke visceral reactions of anger and sorrow for those we lost and joy at the memory of having known them at all. That emotional palette colors Holding the Man, based on the posthumously published 1995 memoir of Australian actor/activist Timothy Conigrave honoring his 15-year relationship with John Caleo. Both died of AIDSCaleo in 1992, and Conigrave weeks after finishing the book in 1994.
It takes a while for Michael Graham's staging ( part of the PAC Pride Fest ) to find the right notes. In particular, the first act, which moves from the moon landing in 1969 ( and all the New Frontier excitement it implied ) to the first blush of romance of budding thespian Tim ( Micah Kronlokken ) and shy footballer John ( Jude Hansen ) to Tim's embrace of sexual liberation in university, feels disjointed. Some of the dialogue ( rendered in Aussie accents ) gets lost in the fast-moving mix of short scenes. ( Isaac Mandel's sound design, heavy on era-appropriate pop hits, does create a fine time capsule. )
We need more of a sense of who Tim and John are when they're alone together, rather than who they are when surrounded by supportive friends and by less-supportive parents. ( Tim's parents are passive-aggressive, while John's father, upon discovering love letters, forbids John to see Tim againan edict that of course doesn't stop the affair. ) Six ensemble members do generally strong work at playing various friends and family members. A charming early scene where Tim flirts with John by scribbling on his pencil case does capture the first notes of infatuation and gets us rooting for them to make it.
The second act comes into sharper focus as we see Tim wrestling with fidelity to John and awash with guilt at having infected his lover once they receive their mutual HIV diagnosis. We also see Tim channeling that guilt and anger into activist documentary theater about AIDS, while John struggles to keep his chiropractic practice going. The scenes here tend to be longer, and the breathing room built into them by both the script and Graham's direction let us take a deeper emotional dive. John's death scene ( marred only by the unnecessary use of a dummy in the bed to represent the dying man as Hansen moves onto a balcony overhead ) feels every bit as sorrowful as Bruce Davison's farewell to his dying lover in Longtime Companion.
Kronlokken tackles the not-so-easy task of playing Tim in all his self-absorption and self-recriminations, while Hansen's Johndespite not having the same emotional highs and lows as his partnershows us the sweet, shy and steady determination of a man who finds his true love early and sees no reason not to keep holding the man, no matter how much it costs him.