‘Lonely Planet’ at MetroStage by Mike Spain

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Lonely Planet replaced another production at MetroStage which I was looking forward to seeing. As I entered the theatre I knew very little about this play, but I am so glad my editor convinced me to see it and review it, because Lonely Planet is a theatre experience I will never forget.

MetroStage’s production of Steven Dietz’s 1994 Lonely Planet is set in 1988 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a roller coaster of emotions – sometimes quiet, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, but always powerful, charming, and meaningful. It’s emotional, real, well-directed and performed. Producer Carolyn Griffin assembles a dream team for this production: Director John Vreeke and actors Michael Russotto and Eric Sutton.

Michael Russotto (Jody) and Eric Sutton (Carl) in 'Lonely Planet.' Photo by Christopher Banks.

Set in a map store, the owner Jody (Michael Russotto) is a withdrawn gay man in his 40s who hides in his store with his reliable and healthy ‘friends’ – his maps. He tries to avoid the real world where his ill friends are dying from the dreaded disease. And after he explains to his friend Carl (Eric Sutton) about ‘The Greenland Problem,’ Carl tries to get Jody to leave his store and return to the real world. He visits Jody often during the day and at night to report to Jody about what’s happening in the world – but most of the news is about who has recently died. When Carl starts bringing in chairs of their friends who have recently died of AIDS, we and Jody and Carl are suddenly transported to the world of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs. It’s all very crazy and yet powerful, and at times very humorous – especially when they roll up some maps and participate in a mock Shakespearean sword fight.

Russotto and Sutton are both fantastic and are so believable. Their interactions are so emotional and heartfelt. You feel for this ‘Odd Couple.’ You relate to the way they annoy each other. You admire their friendship, understand their obsession with their chairs and maps, experience their personal loss of friends, and most important  – you feel their fears that they could ‘be next.’ Humor is the most effective medicine (at that time), and it sustains them both as the plague creeps closely to the map store’s front door.

Set Designer Jane Fink turns the stage into a realistic map store, complete with maps, desk, cash register, door, and a picture of the world taken from space at the top of the stage. And then there are the accumulating chairs, which provide Stage Manager Jessica Lee Winfield and her team a real workout during the play.

Christopher Baine provides the excellent sound design, and effectively uses Jody’s favorite song –  Joe Cocker’s “I Shall Be Released” – written by Bob Dylan. I wasn’t really listening carefully as rock songs were played before the play began and during breaks, but by the the end of the evening – those songs – and especially “I Shall Be Released” – now have new meaning for me. I will never listen to this song the same way again.

Eric Sutton (Carl) and Michael Russotto (Jody) in 'Lonely Planet.' Photo by Christopher Banks.

MetroStage’s Lonely Planet is an entertaining, powerful, and heartfelt experience that should not be missed.

Lonely Planet plays Thursday through Sunday through June 17, 2012 at  MetroStage -1201 N. Royal Street, in Alexandria, Virginia. For tickets, call (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

More information here.