According to poet Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began in 1963”. In many ways it ended 20 years later. The AIDS pandemic gave the permissive society a real wake-up call. As Is by William M Hoffman was the first play to address what was then labelled “the gay plague”.
We are in the house of gay yuppie couple Saul (strongly played by Joey Bartram) and Rich (the compelling Blake Kubena) as their self-absorbed relationship falls apart. Then Rich becomes an early victim of a disease for which there is no known cure. Saul’s devastated reaction and the terrified response of friends, family, co-workers and health professionals is all acutely observed with no room for self-pity. The excellent Sarah Griffin as the hospice worker is a kind of conscience of the play. But it’s really about Rich’s reaction to his death sentence. Saul reassures his lover “we’ll be okay” but everyone knows they won’t.
This is decades before equal rights and gay marriage and it seems a world apart. For those who think Donald Trump is an unlikely presidential hopeful they should consider Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s. This was a time of political, economic and sexual excess – the flipside of today’s New Austerity.
Despite the play’s longueurs (it could do with the trim here and there) director Milla Jackson keeps the pace taut and never lets things get maudlin. The writing is humorous in places which help keeps the plot buoyant and gay artists from George Michael to Keith Haring add equal measures of warmth and knowingness.
The eight-strong cast is uniformly excellent and the story of love, death and the stuff in between, though totally unsparing, is universal. This is a wonderfully told human story that deserves a wide audience.