Sean wants to get HIV. It’s a challenging concept, especially now that we’re more than three decades into an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Good or bad, it’s a valid concept, if only because of fear. Sex is scary, and the idea the such an intimate, sometimes enjoyable, occasionally amazing act could kill you is a hard one to live with. For Sean, the main character and focus of Safe, a play by queer author Seth Tankus and directed Gary Zinkus, that fear pushes him to what most people would label an irrational course of action. Once he gets HIV, he reasons, he won’t have to worry about it anymore.
HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, you see. With the right medication and an otherwise healthy lifestyle, people living with HIV can just go on living. It’s a short-sighted line of reasoning, though, that ignores a host of potential complications including, just to name a few: side-effects from long-term medication and the potential to pass the disease to someone else.
In Tankus’s play, Sean has set his sights on Rob, a man 20 years his senior, who is HIV positive. The play features Sean’s parents, as well, who are mostly supportive of their son. Sean’s relationship with his father is strained, and the story strongly implies that this is one reason why Sean seeks out the comfort of another, older man.
Sean, played by Ryan McAtee, and Rob, played by Todd Hull, have an easy chemistry, owing partially to the fact that McAtee and Hull have played these roles before. Sean’s angst, as portrayed by McAtee, feels believable, and Hull easily balances the line between caring father figure and horny middle-aged man. John McKenna and JenRenee Paulson fill out the remainder of the cast as Sean’s struggling parents. Paulson, in particular, stands out as a mother who desperately wants to defend and support her gay son, barely hiding her fear at what the world may hold in store for him.
Tankus’s writing is sharp, and the dialogue between the characters feels natural. Despite the heavy subject matter, there are still a few literal lol moments, including Hull’s deadpan delivery of Rob and Sean’s vocalized messenger exchanges. The only glaring shortcoming of the piece is that it’s too short. At just under an hour, the play feels like it’s just getting warmed up, that we’re just getting to know the characters and their motivations. Perhaps, if Safe ever gets another run, it would benefit from an additional 30 minutes of material. While the motivations behind Sean seeking out comfort in the arms of an older man are touched on, they could be more thoroughly explored. And, while we’re able to learn a little about Rob’s experiences with HIV and sex, it’s only seen through the eyes of Sean.
That’s not to say that what’s presented isn’t satisfying. Safe makes a difficult, and rarely discussed, subject matter accessible. It’s good art, in that it allows us to engage in the discussion of issues and ideas in meaningful, thoughtful, and heartfelt ways without the burden of logic and reason.
Safe, as presented by Gay City Arts, finishes it run this weekend, playing March 19-22 at Gay City’s Calamus Auditorium. Tickets are $18, and can be purchased online in advance, or at the box office before the show.