History was made on May 1 when the Broadway revival of “Angels in America’’ earned a whopping 11 Tony Award nods, establishing Tony Kushner’s drama about AIDS and gay life in the 1980s as the new record-holder for the play with the most Tony nominations ever.
To get a sense of what a watershed moment that was, it’s worth reading Terrence McNally’s 2015 “Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays,’’ wherein McNally addresses the rampant homophobia in the world of theater — very much including critics — that forced prominent gay playwrights to conceal their sexuality for decades, limiting their subject matter in the process.
Then came Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, which McNally describes as both “a call to arms and an urgent, painful wake-up call to reality’’ that gave rise to “Angels in America,’’ “The Normal Heart,’’ and other dramas that put gay characters and concerns front and center. The result, in McNally’s view: “For the first time since ‘Death of a Salesman,’ it felt as if the theatre and real life in America were in conversation again.’’
McNally, of course, has made his own significant contributions to that conversation and to cultural consciousness regarding the lives of gay people. One of them is “Love! Valour! Compassion!’’, a sprawling, humane, and incisive 1994 play that is laced with both humor and sorrow. It’s now at Zeitgeist Stage Company in a warmly empathetic production directed by David J. Miller.
In “Love! Valour! Compassion!’’, eight gay men who range in age from their early 20s to their late 40s gather at a farmhouse near a lake in upstate New York over three eventful weekends (Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day). The shadow of AIDS is inescapable for all eight, but director Miller and his able cast manage to fulfill both parts of McNally’s aspirations for the play, spelled out in “Selected Works.’’ McNally notes: “I didn’t want to write about AIDS when I began the play but of course there was no way I could avoid it. It was what was happening to us. But I also wanted to write about what else we were doing while so much of our world seemed to be burning. Life went on for us, not just death.’’
As indeed it does in in “Love! Valour! Compassion!’’ There is betrayal and loss along the way, as well as clashes between different generations and sensibilities. The trifecta of noble qualities in the play’s title is evident amid the series of complex interactions among the eight men, and so is the human temptation toward less noble behavior, such as infidelity. Ultimately, the goals of these men are as simple as they are universal: to lead fulfilling lives and to figure out whom to live them with. That may involve starting new relationships or renewing existing commitments or both.
The farmhouse is owned by Gregory (a very good David Anderson), a choreographer and impresario of a dance company in his 40s who is tormented by the pain in his joints as he starts to confront the price of his physically demanding profession. Gregory also has reason to worry about the loyalty of his blind lover, Bobby (Cody Sloan), an ethereal figure who is half the choreographer’s age. A sensuous dancer named Ramon (a charismatic Michael J. Blunt) who is Bobby’s age harbors amorous designs on him.
Brooks Reeves, whose stellar work at Zeitgeist has included “Bent’’ and “The Boys in the Band,’’ delivers another standout performance . . . make that two standout performances. Reeves shoulders the dual roles of twin brothers with markedly divergent personalities: peevish sourpuss John and sweet-natured James, who is deep into a losing battle with AIDS.
Domestic stability is embodied by Perry (Joey C. Pelletier) and Arthur (Keith Foster), who have been a couple for a decade and a half. Breezy wisecracks consistently emanate from Buzz (Jeremy Johnson, excellent), a costume designer for Gregory’s company and a devotee of musical theater who is HIV-positive.
In the play’s extended, deeply moving coda, we are pulled deep into the future.
For all his freewheeling demeanor, it is Buzz who reveals surprising depths, entering into an unexpected relationship despite his fear of intimacy and further loss. It is Buzz, too, who asks the fraught question that’s always lurking there, for the eight friends and for all of us: “Who’s gonna be there for me when it’s my turn?’’ That we believe the reassuring answer he receives is a testament to the quality of this fine production.
LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!
Play by Terrence McNally. Directed by David J. Miller. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 19. Tickets: $20-$30, 617-933-8600, www.zeitgeiststage.comDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin