Map of the World

After writing a number of dramas in which he described minor characters as being merely "friends" of the central character, playwright Steven Dietz decided to examine those crucial and nonfamilial relationships that people work hard to establish but often take for granted. Noting in a 1995 interview that he was inspired by his own love for maps, by the particular talents of two actor friends and by Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic The Chairs, Dietz set about penning Lonely Planet as an "homage to friendship." Following the play's world premiere in 1993, critics and audiences alike regarded the piece as a memorial to victims of AIDS, even though Dietz had purposely avoided mentioning the name of the disease that preoccupies the play's pair of map-store denizens.

While the Denver Civic Theatre's production doesn't make an obsession out of that preoccupation, director Lisa Rucker and company sometimes emphasize the tragedy of premature death at the expense of the dramatist's surreal paean to enduring friendship. In addition, the relationship between the fortyish Jody (Warren Sherrill), the proprietor of a small map store, and his best friend, the thirty-something Carl (Michael Stricker), seems more like a college-style friendship than the multilayered close connection that develops after several years' worth of life-defining transformations.

In fact, the first thing one notices after entering the theater -- and that dominates one's thinking long after the play ends -- is Lynn Hemingway Cordiner's meticulously designed setting of stained wood and frosted-glass windows. The map store's floor space and shelves are crammed with all varieties of geography-related paraphernalia, such as globes, books, posters and large rolled-up maps that are stuffed halfway into bins. There are even a couple of framed maps hanging over the counter that holds the cash register and that serves as Jody's home base. As the play unfolds, the marvelously detailed shop proves an ideal surrounding in which to hold a series of pause-filled and nuanced conversations. And, for nearly two hours, that's precisely what Sherrill and Stricker do.

They engage in emotion-charged talks about friends who have succumbed to the aforementioned disease. Carl underscores that loss by periodically filling the already crammed shop, which the agoraphobic Jody has refused to leave for several months, with piles of chairs that belonged to their recently deceased friends. Carl's compulsive furniture deliveries are also meant to remind Jody that, despite his ostrich mentality, death -- and life -- still go on outside his door. When Jody realizes that he hasn't been tested for the disease in the last six months, Carl persuades him to leave the shop in order to visit a clinic. After Jody gets his results, both men are forced to re-examine the dynamics of their relationship -- a task that's made all the more difficult because of Carl's tendency to avoid telling the truth and Jody's inability to face it. As fate would have it, though, both men deal with their demons in surprisingly uncharacteristic ways. However cruelly, it seems as though the truth has at last set them free.

But even though the talented performers successfully scavenge the play's naturalistic bottom, director Rucker never articulates its absurdist undercurrents. Part of the problem is that the actors' behavior is more or less dictated by the realistic set, which suggests that the play's events all take place within the map store's confining, definable environment. However, there's more to Dietz's drama than an ultrarealistic, soap-opera-like probing of the ties that bind. For instance, Jody makes a few halfhearted attempts to leave the store, only to pause for a few seconds in the doorway before thinking better of his decision. As played here, those moments seem to reflect an inconsequential change of heart. But if the play were performed against a suggestive setting with an evocatively lit backdrop and towering columns of chairs, those episodes would take on a more cosmic and otherworldly tone. So would much of the play's highly structured dialogue, which Sherrill and Stricker have a habit of reducing to the unremarkable patterns of everyday speech; a more nonrealistic setting would force them to take their portrayals to a higher level of understanding -- in much the same way that actors who perform Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire must temper their appetite for gritty realism with a healthy measure of Williams-esque poeticism.

Still, the absorbing production marks a welcome departure from several seasons' worth of hit-and-miss efforts -- some of which were debilitatingly amateurish -- at the formerly rent-a-wreck Civic. The lobby and gallery spaces have been newly renovated, and there's now a refreshing energy and enthusiasm in the atmosphere instead of a general feeling of angst and gloom. With a little seasoning and attention to the fundamentals of style, the plucky troupe might yet make a thriving enterprise out of an organization that, like Dietz's character of Jody, was once considered practically beyond hope.

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Jim Lillie