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THEATER

It Still Rings True

Michael Kearns hardly knew what hit him when he first read 'Jerker.' Now, 10 years after its premiere, the director is reviving the play, drawn back by far more than the controversial language and setting.

September 01, 1996|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The first time he read "Jerker," Michael Kearns was so moved he couldn't move.

Sitting outside on a sunny day about 10 years ago, the Los Angeles actor-director breezed through the 40-page script. Then he discovered he was unable to rise from his chair.

"It was the only time in my life, the only time before or since, that I can remember being immobilized by something that was so viscerally connected to who I was and what I was feeling at the time, this overwhelming helplessness and sadness and loss of connection," Kearns remembers.

The play--whose full title is "Jerker, or the Helping Hand"--was by a San Francisco writer named Robert Chesley. And although Kearns couldn't have foreseen it at the time, the raunchy and wistful one-act about two gay men falling in love over a phone-sex line would end up influencing contemporary theater and igniting a cultural and political debate that burns to this day.

Kearns directed the world premiere of "Jerker" at the Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles in July 1986. When excerpts from the performance were broadcast on local radio station KPFK-FM, conservative critics attacked the play as obscene and demanded action by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasting. Kearns responded that such criticism amounted to homophobic censorship.

Through it all, however, "Jerker" endured, long after many other gay-themed plays that bowed during the initial AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s were forgotten. The play has remained a favorite at nonprofit theaters, with at least 33 productions so far in the United States and in London and Toronto. An off-Broadway version ran for seven months in 1986-87. The work has even outlived its author, who died of complications of AIDS in 1990.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of the first production, Kearns has directed a revival at Highways in Santa Monica, opening Thursday as part of the theater's Ecce Lesbo/Ecce Homo series.

Why has Chesley's play, still unknown to most straight people, remained so popular in the gay community? Part of it has to do with ease of performance: "Jerker" uses only two actors and a minimal set, strong selling points in the undercapitalized world of nonprofit theater. And part of it undoubtedly has to do with the shock value provided by nudity and extremely explicit language.

"We're not going to have to worry about Barbra Streisand getting the rights to 'Jerker,' starring Tom Cruise and Matthew Modine," Kearns jokes, referring to Streisand's now-aborted negotiations to make a film of Larry Kramer's AIDS play "The Normal Heart."

But Kearns sees something else: Chesley's deft handling of timeless themes like the mysterious nature of intimacy and love--themes that have, ultimately, transcended the politically charged setting of San Francisco in 1985.

"This play is less polemical than some of the other so-called AIDS plays," Kearns says. "That's its strength. The play is really not about AIDS. That's why it plays as purely in 1996 as it did in 1986, because it's not bogged down by any stats [on deaths from AIDS], by any information like, 'This is what's happening governmentally.'

"It has to do with two human beings connecting, and that's why the play will play 100 years from now, long after I hope we've forgotten about AIDS," he says. "The more simple you put it, the more it sounds like a Hallmark card."

Scholar Jonathan Katz agrees.

"What I find curious is that in focusing on the explicit language and nudity, people miss the extraordinary romance of the story," says Katz, chairman of the Department of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Studies at City College of San Francisco. "It's an incredibly sweet story. In fact, the play has been accused of overly romanticizing gay male life and love."

*

At first blush, "Jerker" might not seem to run that risk. Chesley appeared to lay out his concerns with a long subtitle: "A Pornographic Elegy With Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty."

The relationship is initiated by J.R., identified as a San Francisco gay man in his mid-30s or early 40s. His telephonic lover is Bert, a somewhat older man who, the viewer learns, is suffering from AIDS. The initial calls are randy and playful, but as their friendship deepens the piece gradually turns more serious, the language more lyrical.

San Diego actor Joe Gill, who plays J.R. in the current production, which has already had short runs in San Francisco and Palm Springs, notes that viewers are taken for an emotional ride.

"The first two scenes, on the surface, are very in-your-face and sexual, they cut to the chase," he says. But as the characters reveal more about themselves--and allude in various ways to the disease that keeps them and other gay men safely distanced from one another--"the audience yearns for them to get together," Gill says.

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