“Lovers are easy, friends are hard.”
It’s not until the second act of the very funny and deeply affecting “Lonely Planet,” now playing at Firehouse Theatre, that one of the play’s characters delivers this insightful nugget.
Not said but made abundantly clear throughout the deftly designed and exquisitely acted production is the notion that friends are also our saviors, sometimes the only buffers between us and an often brutal world.
That’s particularly true in the world of this play, which portrays the odd couple relationship between finicky map store proprietor, Jody (Eddie Webster), and his antic friend Carl (Adam Turck) who flits in and out of Jody’s store, manically monologuing about his travails.
While it’s never stated, we’re in the late 1980s and the AIDS epidemic is at its peak. Jody and Carl are witnessing their community being ravaged, friends falling ill and dying in horrific succession.
At first, it seems like this may be a one-sided relationship, Jody providing a sanctuary for Carl and acting as his sounding board. But a much more complex friendship emerges as we see Carl confronting the crisis around them through active involvement while Jody collapses into agoraphobic seclusion.
The ways in which each friend depends on the other is revealed slowly through several breezily comic scenes. Jody tries to ask Carl why he has inexplicably left a new chair in the middle of the shop, but can’t get past Carl’s ranting about how boring people are. Later, the friends engage in a playful battle using map tubes as swords.
It’s only when Jody mentions that he needs to get tested that we realize what exactly the stakes are.
- Tom Topinka
- The 5th Wall Theatre production of “Lonely Planet” is playing at Firehouse Theatre through Nov. 26.
Director Nathaniel Shaw brings a cohesive vision to the production, each scene building like a dance between the two actors. The pace lags in some of the pivotal moments, like when Carl confronts Jody on his shut-in status. This has the unfortunate effect of dissipating some of the emotional weight, but also provides opportunities to luxuriate in the exceptional performances.
Turck has the showier role and devours the scenery throughout, maintaining coherence during his scenes of frenzied whirling about the map shop, then channeling sadness, compassion and rage in quieter moments like his monologue about paying the bills of friends who have died.
But Turck’s performance only works with a sturdy yin to his fervent yang, and Webster perfectly embodies the role. Quiet without being meek, sad without being maudlin, Webster projects a soulful bewilderment in the face of unfolding tragedy.
Thanks perhaps to playing a very different couple in “The Inheritance” at Triangle Players last year, the actors have a comfortable chemistry, making intimate scenes, such as Carl cutting Jody’s hair, extra cozy.
The striking set design by Daniel Allen fills a full quarter of the stage with stacked chairs, a palpable reminder of the human toll being dramatized. The map shop is neatly appointed and bathed with muted lighting designed by Todd LaBelle that helps dramatize Jody’s shrinking worldview. LaBelle creates an even more striking effect with his sound design and the soft roar heard when Jody warily opens the shop door.
“Lonely Planet” is a fine choice to signal the reawakening of 5th Wall Theatre company, dormant during the illness and passing of founder Carol Piersol. Playwright Steven Dietz effectively employs quirky but relatable characters to show the damage the AIDS epidemic wrought, even on those feeling its secondary effects.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the play premiered and HIV/AIDS continues to impact global health. With widespread loneliness emerging as a contemporary mental health epidemic, the show’s portrayal of the power and fragility of friendship remains profoundly relevant.
The 5th Wall Theatre production of “Lonely Planet” is playing at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad St., through Nov. 26. Tickets and information available at https://www.firehousetheatre.org/.