John Weston's "Listen to the Dreaming," in its debut production by the Stop-Gap drama therapy group, is billed as an "AIDS-era" play.
It's not really concerned with the impact of the disease on society at large: There's no discussion of the battle for research money, or of the legal or ethical ramifications of mandatory testing. Neither is it a public service announcement disguised as painful drama. Any calls for safe sex or for more education are not stated, only implied.
Weston, an Irvine writer best known for his novels, is more interested here in the question of how individuals respond to acquired immune deficiency syndrome: what they think and feel when they have it, what other people who don't have it think and feel when they know it's in their midst.
The play revolves around the initially hostile but eventually loving relationship between Charles (Glen Smith), an aging homosexual who runs a cluttered antique shop, and Jason (Pete Carter), a streetwise homosexual youth who has AIDS.
Charles' world of complacency and routine--his life consists of feisty exchanges with sister Sally (Rochelle Savitt) and his spacey niece Jayreen (Alisa Tan), fiddling with the merchandise and moodily reflecting on his first love, a soldier killed in "the big war"--is cleaved one night when Jason tries to rob him.
After they assault each other verbally for several minutes, Charles finds himself attracted by the young man's helplessness and lets him spend the night. He later learns that Jason has AIDS and decides to nurse him until the end. Has Charles resurrected his long-dead lover in Jason's image or is it purely an act of kindness? It's never really made clear.
But though Charles' motivation may be murky, the message is not. Weston is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating: We should not fear AIDS victims.
The fatherly solace that Charles offers Jason is a natural act of compassion. His actions are etched in contrast to the outburst from Jayreen when she discovers that Jason has AIDS. Cursing him, she flees in terror from the room, as if the very air were contaminated. It's a revealing scene that emphasizes the extra burdens the victims of AIDS must bear.
Unfortunately, along with its moments of illumination and real life tension, "Dreaming" has at least as many plodding, seemingly irrelevant patches.
Weston has said he did not want the play to be solely about AIDS, and it's not. But the other things it's about often confuse the issue. The dialogue follows a meandering path from Eastern mysticism to ghetto life to Sally's playboy ex-husband to Charles' thoughts about getting old. All this talk tends to be beside the point. Then again, the reality of AIDS tends to make everything else seem beside the point.
"Dreaming" also is laced with much upbeat humor, which director Don Laffoon tries to balance against the play's more somber thrust. Seeking a lighter subtext is a good idea--it can be life-affirming and provide welcome pauses of relief--but this production has to guard against appearing blithe in the face of tragedy.
Laffoon has succeeded in setting the appropriate tone and tempo for his actors who, despite a histrionic slip here and there, are able to satisfy the play's emotional needs. Smith gives Charles the moral courage and reservoir of loneliness that makes his decision to help Jason convincing. And Carter movingly conveys Jason's anguish-disguising bravado and his heart-rending bewilderment over his fate.
Finally, with its argument for compassion, "Listen to the Dreaming" has something to offer as a document for a generation that must come to terms with AIDS. It may be a flawed work, but there's no doubting its humane intentions. 'LISTEN TO THE DREAMING'
A Stop-Gap production of the John Weston play. Director Don Laffoon. With Glen Smith, Pete Carter, Rochelle Savitt and Alisa Tan. Set John Weston. Lighting Carl Callaway. Plays at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closes Oct. 24. Tickets: $10, $8. Forum Theatre, Festival of the Arts grounds, Laguna Beach; (714) 722-7727.