I will tell you that when my son’s godfather began to die, he removed himself from Manhattan, and from nearly all those who loved him, to a small house in a town of 600 three hours north where, blind and wracked with pain, he spent the final weeks of his life. This was in 1995. He was 41 years old. I think of him most days, and not only because I still wear the black-and-white checkered flannel robe Timothy left me, or because, had he lived just a bit longer – only a few weeks! – the introduction of protease inhibitors might have saved him.
No, I think of him most days because love lost leaves a vacuum never truly filled and makes no distinction among its sufferers. All we can do is struggle to live lives of grace as exemplified by Timothy, who appeared to me frequently, if ectoplasmically, as I watched Matthew Lopez’s miraculous play, The Inheritance, unfold at the Barrymore Theatre:
“Peter had ‘the look,’ the telltale sign that someone was infected. His handsome face was sunken and sallow, his muscles had melted away. It was clear in one glance that he had it. He was also, I discovered, essentially homeless. His landlord evicted him. He’d been estranged from his family for years. He had nowhere to go. We took the next train upstate and phoned for a cab. The driver took one look at Peter and fled. We stood there, four miles from my house with no other means to get there but our legs. The day was beautiful and Peter smiled as he breathed in the country air through his rattling lungs. The sun was setting as we approached the house. I could feel a release in Peter's body. I put him in one of the rooms upstairs. Peter spent the next five days slowly dying. I cleaned him when he fouled himself. I held him as he wept in grief. I comforted him as he screamed in pain.”
Lopez, author of the brutally stirring drama The Whipping Man, among other significant plays, has reached very high with his new play, in telling the story of AIDS. He takes for his template E.M. Forster’s Howards End – you know, the “Only connect!” novel – and is so bold as to have Forster himself help narrate a tale that has been updated to the years when a positive finding of HIV was a death sentence. Staged by Stephen Daldry with a supremely confident balance of empathy and gimlet-eyed naturalism, and designed with elegant simplicity by Bob Crowley (set and clothes; the gorgeous, otherworldly lighting is by Jon Clark), The Inheritance is the rare theatrical event that justifies the commitment requested of audience members to attend two parts totaling about seven hours.
The play begins in the present, at a gathering of young men struggling with the task of writing. Enter Morgan (as Forster was known, and played with witful austerity by Paul Hilton), who asks, “Why aren’t you writing?”
“I don’t know how to start,” one young man answers. “I thought that maybe I’d read a little and see how others begin their stories.”
“You have stumbled across the writer’s most valuable tool: procrastination,” Morgan replies. “What is your story about?”
“Me,” he answers. “My friends. The men I’ve loved. And those I’ve lost. … Will you help me tell my story? Our story?”
And so he does, and so they do, roughly emulating Forster’s novel, which is as much about a place (New York City in the 1980s and a house Upstate in the country) and time (when an old social order is beginning to crumble) as it is about the people of that place and time. Once its lead-ins and subplots have reduced to a quintessence, The Inheritance concerns Walter Poole (also played by Hilton), whose happenstance encounter with wealthy businessman Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey, a master of understated subtlety) has led to a long-term pairing of opposites. (“I was never meant to be Henry’s life partner,” is how Walter puts it. “I was the person he was dancing with when the music stopped.”)
The frequently absent Henry and Walter own the house in the country, but when Walter opens it up as a hospice for his dying friends, the phobic Henry grants him sole ownership. When Walter himself succumbs, Henry reclaims it, keeping to himself the knowledge that in his dying moments, Walter had left the house to his young companion, Eric Glass (played with unerring sympathy by Kyle Soller).
Although the first half has several graphic scenes, the tone of The Inheritance is elegiac and expansive. When Eric eventually arrives at the house for the first time, his welcoming, which concludes the first half of The Inheritance, is as shattering as anything I’ve ever experienced in the theater. How he, Henry and their Venn diagram of social circles sort things out as AIDS gradually shifts from death sentence to annoyance (at least for those with the means and access to the new drugs) takes up the bulk of Part 2. The very definition of “inheritance” assumes multiple meanings, from property to disease, survival and, above all, to love.
With its unself-conscious blend of narration and performance, of tell and show, as well as most of the brilliant company playing multiple roles, The Inheritance put me in mind of another legendary two-parter. Not, as some have suggested, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickelby. For it is not so much a “gay fantasia,” as Kushner called his epic work, as it is a tale told, planted in reality yet suffused with sorrow that, almost undetected, transmutes into hope.
Sitting in the audience, I was keenly aware that for many of us, gay and straight, hope was hard won, a tribute to those we lost. “You live,” are its final words. They’re every bit as resonant as “Only connect!”