By Kevin Brofsky
At: Pride Arts Center att the Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 773-857-0222 or prideartschicago.com; $25 -$30, $20 seniors, seniors, military. Runs through: Aug. 26
Common sense will tell you that the ending will be sad. This much is clear to Oscar, Dennis, and Norman, three of the four gay men at the wounded, vibrant heart of Kevin Brofsky's marvelous drama Hurricane Damage.
The truth of the Carousel lyric ( referenced by Dennis ) is brutal: Live long enough, and you'll understand that life is one, long series of goodbyes. But as the men clean up from a hurricane that has ravaged Florida's Gulf Coast, they find a gleaming shard of joy piercing the loss.
Directed by Paul J. Cook, Hurricane Damage is both brutal and beautiful. The same can be said of 52-year-old Dennis ( Charles Berglund ), his long-time partner Oscar, 67 ( Danne W. Taylor ), their devoted hired hand Ford, 26 ( Jesse Montoya ) and old friend Norman, 52 ( Tom Chiola ).
The drama is set in 2011 Dunedin, Florida, but the dialogue takes the the men ( and the audience ) back to New York City during the wild, endless party of the 1970s and through the decades-long nightmare that followed the onset of the AIDS pandemic. The ensemble makes the starkly bifurcated era as vivid as the present moment.
The plot churns into high gear with the arrival of Norman, once an integral part of the part of a lower Manhattan social circle powered by youthful beauty, idealism and the dreams of rising artists. In the 40+ years since Norman last saw Dennis and Oscar, conventional beauty has faded. Disease has eclipsed dreams. That unswerving sense of immortality that makes your 20s feel like flying is long gone. Oscar is dying of diabetes and liver cancer. Dennis cares for him ( most of the time ) and loves him, but it's "consolation prize" kind of love. The real love of Dennis' life died of AIDS decades ago.
Once a dancer on the verge of a Broadway career, Dennis closed the door on his dreams when he and Oscar fled AIDS ravaged New York in the 1980s. Their plan to stay in Florida "just until this blows over" turned into a lifetime. Dennis gave up dancing to start a cleaning business. Oscar's career as a high-powered ad exec is now no more than barely remembered campaigns. Norman, meanwhile, has wandered the globe, a world-renowned photographer who lives everywhere and has a home nowhere. Then there's Ford, an adorably sweet millennial who confuses Bea Arthur with Maude Adams and whose admission that he's "heard of" Judy Garland sets Dennis on a hilariously on point exegesis about Garland's importance to the gay community.
Brofsky's dialogue is as real as life. One moment, it's cuttingly funny ( Oscar breaking into his secret stash of Pepperidge Farm Milanos ), the next it's white-hot with rage ( Dennis' blistering reaction to the forbidden sweets ), the next it's quietly, unmistakably tragic ( Dennis' early 1980s realization that countless colleagues had vanished from the audition circuit ).
The performances are stellar. Oscar's second act monologue about life and death in the 1980s is one of the emotional high points of the production. Berglund's Dennis is as lovable as he is acerbic. Chiola's Norm is earnest and endearing, both subtly visible beneath a gruff exterior that cloaks layers of world-weary sadness.
Finally, there's Montoya's Ford, a young man with abs for days and guns that could take out Anita Bryant from 500 yards. He represents the youth that his older friends have left behind, and the optimism of a generation that hasn't been ravaged by plague. He's the adorable, loving handyman/best friend every household should have.
The final image of Hurricane Damage is achingly beautiful and one of the rare instances where on-stage nudity enhances the entire play rather than distracts from it. It's an affirmation of life and human bodies, be they scored with scars and sags or as pristine as Michelangelo's David. It's also an image of hope and profound human connection.