Walterdale’s Jeffrey tackles AIDS, love, and end-of-life with humour and tact

Sean Richard MacKinnon and Gerald Mason in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

Sean Richard MacKinnon and Gerald Mason in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

If nothing else, Jeffrey, playing at Walterdale Theatre until February 14, is a bold show. From the moment you walk into the theatre, you’re face-to-face with an angular, grafittied set, the most popular tunes from the 80s and 90s, fabulous characters from New York’s LGBT community, and a story that tackles topics we don’t often find on stage.

Jeffrey is a single gay man in New York in the mid-1990s, as the AIDS epidemic is slowing down. In the face of the anxiety around AIDS and the certainty that being HIV-positive will lead to death for the infected person and heartbreak for those around him, Jeffrey decides to be celibate. Which isn’t easy for someone who’s been obsessed with sex since he was 14, nevermind for someone who may have met the love of his life on day 1 of his new resolution. Jeffrey is an exploration of the tension between finding love and avoiding loss, with a few end-of-life conversations thrown in for good measure.

Paul Rudnick‘s excellent script tackles these difficult topics with some of the best humour I’ve seen on stage recently. The humour he uses is both situational and based on the stereotypes of gay men as they are portrayed in the media.The humour humanizes the characters and helps the audience emotionally engage with the characters and accept the play’s central idea of finding joy even in difficult situations. Of course, as good comedy does, it also makes the sad moments of the show that much more poignant. The cast for this production at Walterdale is great at walking that line between joyousness and knowing that tragedy right around the corner, especially through Act 2, where Paul Rudnick’s script really starts hitting hard. Plays discussing any illness are rare, but when you consider that Jeffrey was first produced in 1993, the way that Paul Rudnick’s script addresses the fear surrounding AIDS and presents a more honest look at gay communities and culture, is particularly admirable. Jeffrey is at once a funny, but not insensitively so, look at the very serious topics of AIDS and its effects on individuals and relationships.

Logan Boon, Gerald Mason, and Simon Muller in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

Logan Boon, Gerald Mason, and Simon Muller in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

Co-directors Kyle Thulien and Sarah Van Tassel did a great job casting the show. In the title role of Jeffrey, Sean Richard MacKinnon was particularly good at riding the emotional roller-coaster of the play. With his character constantly searching for joy in the face of sadness, you couldn’t help but be buoyed throughout the play by Sean’s continuous hopeful expressions and actions. One thing I did question was his use of more youthful mannerisms for Jeffrey as well as stances and poses that suggested a bit of uncomfortability with his body. Based on Jeffrey’s claim that he puts those who have “only” had 5000 sexual partners to shame, I would have expected Jeffrey to be portrayed as being at least in his late 20s and a little more comfortable in his skin.

Gerald Mason’s portrayal of Sterling, the rich gentleman who’s found love with a younger man, was a standout performance. As Stirling, Gerald takes the audience on a much more subtle, but similarly powerful emotional ark as Jeffrey. First appearing in a boutique’s dressing room, flamboyantly trying on suit jackets and judging the world with a lot of attitude, Gerald, as Stirling, morphs into one of the most sympathetic characters of the show, and his final words – “I do” – burst my dam of tears near the end of the show.

Catherine Wenschlag in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

Catherine Wenschlag in Jeffrey. Photo credit: Douglas Stewart/ Rad Grandpa Photography

All of the ensemble members – Catherine Wenschlag, Mark Kelly, Morgan D.D. Refshauge, and Trevor Talbott – were great at completely reimagining each character they played. In particular, in the role of “female ensemble”, I loved Catherine Wenschlag’s ability to play an army of female characters – from serene Mother Teresa to the overexcited mother of a pre-operative transexual to – my favourite – a televised evangelical preacher dispensing advice to her audience members. Catherine’s comedic timing was spot on – often played with a bit of the stand-up sensibility – providing some of the funniest moments in the show.

Jeffrey was also one of those plays where I kept being distracted by how much I loved Leland Stelck’s set design.

Upon entering Walterdale Theatre’s playing space, you are immediately transported to the mid-90s by Phil Kreisel’s soundtrack of all the hits of that era combined with set designer Leland Stelck’s magnificent set. The set took a crew of 17 painters and it’s easy to see why. Walterdale Theatre’s gorgeous rusty brick walls have been combined with angular construted walls that hearken back to the mod architectural era to create mid-1990s New York. The constructed set walls are graffitied so believably, it’s as if a team of street artists had just been through the building. The floor, meanwhile, is a map of New York’s subway system, which the cast crisscrosses both physically and metaphorically – from a hospital waiting room, to a dark alley, to the TV studio of an evangelical preacher. The set was both visually interesting and neutral enough to be transported with a simple change in lighting along with images on the projection screen that was part of the set in the centre of the stage to help the audience visualize the new locale.

Finally, as mentioned, I loved Phil Kreisel’s sound choices during pre-show and intermission – they set the tone and era immediately. But, I could have used either more of a soundscape or a higher volume during some of the scenes, especially ones that were meant to take place in more noisy locations, such as the streets or parties where Jeffrey was working. For example, the music at the “Hoe-Down for AIDS” party scene felt a little muted and the other scenes where Jeffery was serving at parties or memorials could have used more background sounds (chatter, glasses, soft music) to create a more realistic atmosphere.

Jeffrey runs at Walterdale Theatre until February 14. Tickets are $12 – $18 through Tix on the Square.

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