Jamal Sterling and Denise Lee in Amphibian’s reimagined casting of ‘Lonely Planet.’

Amphibian updates Steven Dietz’s AIDS play ‘Lonely Planet’ for a new millennium

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
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In 1993, at the height of the AIDS crisis, a (straight) playwright wrote a two-hander on the tolls the epidemic took not only on the physical health of so many people (especially gay men), but on the sense of community as a whole. Since then, the AIDS cocktail has altered the urgency of the crisis, but not the urgency of being in touch with our own humanity.

“I think that is probably true, in terms of longevity since it’s 25 years old, that Lonely Planet  is probably the play I’m most known for… and I’m happy with that,” says Steven Dietz from his home in Austin. (He and his wife split their time between Texas and Washington state.)

Playwright Steven Dietz. (Courtesy Bret Brookshire)

The latest production of Lonely Planet — whose plot concerns two (usually white) gay men named Carl and Jody as they come to terms with the how HIV is decimating their friends as chairs show up in Jody’s shop, reminding him of the human cost — is now open at Fort Worth’s Amphibian Stage Productions, but features a twist: Two African-American actors, including one woman (M. Denise Lee), take on the roles. Playwrights can legally exercise full authority to approve (or not) casting choices, but Dietz enthusiastically embraces Amphibian’s decision.

“I’ve made a story that I want to be told, and I would never disabuse someone of their passion to do my play,” he says. “I’ve seen productions with two women, with teenagers, [even] a junior high production where instead of chairs it was bicycles. To each his and her own as a playwright of course, but it has never been my experience that someone wanted to make a change to the context or casting to flip the meaning of the play. I think my work is being honored by being tested. I think the play is strong enough to hold up [to such changes].”

Director William Earl Ray — who saw one of the original productions in Seattle decades ago — says he and Amphibian Artistic Director Kathleen Culebro have a very specific reason for choosing the cast they did.

“Kathleen spoke with a young African-American who works with an AIDS organization and [learned] that the people [most affected] are in the African-American and Hispanic communities,” he says. “I felt the need to open the audition process to both men and women of color.”

It helps that Amphibian has cast two powerhouse performers — Lee and Jamal Gibran Sterling — in the roles. “They were the best combination that closed out the casting process,” Ray says. (Lee will play the role as a woman, not as a man.)

“I’m excited that these terrific, experienced artists and their diversity will test to play further,” Dietz says.

“There are playwrights who believe in definitive productions; I have favorite and less favorite productions, but I don’t want a definitive version.”

Because Lonely Planet is so widely performed by a variety of companies, Dietz can’t see all of them, but due to the play’s recent 25th anniversary, he has been revisiting the text recently; in October, he directed a version in Seattle, where the two actors he originally wrote it for performed it. And he has a deeper understanding of the relevance of the work even today.

“I think in historical time, the play is not in the same world now as [when I wrote it]. The way we deal with the advances medically [with HIV] are terrific though not complete. The play is not a time capsule, but there are younger people who didn’t live through that time, and I hope it’s a window into that.

The pressuring mechanism is AIDS, but the story of Lonely Planet is, there’s something out there I am really afraid of, and now that thing is right in this room. It’s still an urgent play about friendship, and the urgency of that time was [profound]. I don’t think how we rely on our friends at a time of crisis is any less urgent.”