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THEATER

Staging a Comeback

Illness inspires Valley duo to create musical, giving hope to those battling AIDS and other chronic diseases.

October 01, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When finally he was strong enough to sit without pillows propping him up, Steve Schalchlin settled in front of the piano in his North Hollywood apartment. He rested his head against the top of the spinet, his cheek against the polished wood, and he played chords. Long, slow, full chords.

"The next morning when I got up, I felt normal for the first time in three years," Schalchlin said. "The music or the vibrations or whatever--it brought me around."

Still, he was not well. Music may calm the savage breast; it has not cured AIDS.

But over the weeks, those chords became a song. One song turned into 10. Ten songs turned into a musical. And that musical--"The Last Session," now at the Laguna Playhouse--turned into a bona fide phenomenon.

Written by Schalchlin's partner of 14 years, playwright and director Jim Brochu, the play book for "The Last Session" bears an undeniable resemblance to Schalchlin's life. Gideon, a pop singer whose life has been dismantled by AIDS, goes into the studio to record one final set of songs, having decided that the next day he will commit suicide.

The conflict arrives in the form of three backup singers: Gideon's former wife, a friend who has a gay son, and Buddy, a newcomer who is a conservative Christian.

For all that, "The Last Session" is not a play about AIDS. The conflict between Buddy and Gideon centers on whether a man can be gay and Christian, but the deeper issues it touches have to do with the despair brought on by chronic disease. And, by the way, notes director Brochu, it's a comedy.

The play has touched audiences. A workshop production at the Zephyr Theatre in Los Angeles sold out in July 1996. Off-off-Broadway, at the 100-seat Currican Theater, the play ran four months beginning in May 1997 and found backers to take it off-Broadway to the larger 47th Street Theater in October, where it ran for five months.

From each production emerge stories of people whose outlook, if not lives, were transformed by "The Last Session." People living with disease express relief at seeing their emotions onstage. Caregivers thank Schalchlin for the insight into the psyche of their own sick loved ones. And in one case, a woman with AIDS, who, like Gideon, had decided to kill herself, told the cast afterward that she changed her mind after seeing the play.

Sitting in the audience at the Currican, Michael Alden knew by the third song that he wanted to be a part of this show. A film producer, Alden had lost his lover to AIDS 10 years earlier. Though he'd never worked on a theatrical show, he signed on as co-producer of the off-Broadway production.

He handed out fliers in Times Square, told people about the play and offered them money-back guarantees if they'd come see it.

"I've lost a lot of people [to AIDS], some of whom just gave up," Alden said. "This play provides some reason as to why hope is important."

New York critics praised the cast's singing, particularly that of Bob Stillman, who revisits the role of Gideon in the Laguna Beach production. And while critics also pointed out that the book is a somewhat formulaic vehicle for the songs, few remained unmoved. The Los Angeles Times called the Laguna production "written from the heart" and said Schalchlin's songs "exert a rare emotional pull." A reviewer for Back Stage in New York wrote: "I defy anyone to get through it entirely dry-eyed."

In the small North Hollywood apartment where he and Brochu live, Schalchlin could hardly get through the telling of his own story dry-eyed.

Raised by his parents, a Baptist preacher and a nurse in eastern Texas, Schalchlin joined a Christian pop group as a young adult. The group had some regional success, but it didn't last. He started playing piano and singing in lounges on cruise ships, where he met Brochu.

After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1980s, Schalchlin hoped to break into songwriting but instead wound up as director of the National Academy of Songwriters, championing Los Angeles' burgeoning acoustic music scene in the early 1990s.

Then, on Mother's Day 1994--about one year after Schalchlin tested positive for HIV--he developed pneumocystis pneumonia. His breathing was so shallow that he could speak only one word at a time. Brochu took him to the emergency room in Santa Monica, where he collapsed.

He regained consciousness some time later in an emergency room bed. A man who was at the hospital with his wife asked what had happened. Schalchlin, who previously had refused to acknowledge the disease that was killing him and who could barely inhale, screamed: "I have AIDS!"

"Bedpans dropped. Doctors turned," Brochu recalled. "It was one of those moments that you really didn't want to be there for." The man who prompted the response--Anson Williams, the actor best known for his role as Potsie on "Happy Days"--was unfazed. "You're not ready to die," he told Schalchlin.

Schalchlin's voice caught a little as he remembered how one friend told him in the hospital, "If you die, a piece of me is going to die too."

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