On Dec. 1, 2020, World AIDS Day, Horizon Theatre premiered, in streaming, virtual theatre a remarkable work called “Love, M.”: “a letters play,” by Clarinda Ross. Let me say up front that you haven’t missed it, for it is running the entire year of 2021 free of charge; all you have to do is go to the website given below. You can see it more than once; I have.
“Love, M.” is produced in partnership with the Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition and AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The play is a powerful story about mothers and sons and AIDS activists during the early days of the AIDS pandemic (yes, there has been more than one pandemic).
“Love, M.” is directed by Heidi McKerley and produced by Lisa Adler. The outstanding video editor and sound designer is Amy L. Levin.
The superb cast of four people: Lamman Rucker (from the TV series “Greenleaf”), who plays Timothy, living in Atlanta; Broadway veteran Terry Burrell, who plays his mother, Myrtle, who lives in a North Carolina town. She’s a devout Southern Baptist.
Then there is Deborah, a well-to-do Atlanta matron, played by the playwright, Clarinda Ross. Her son Chris (Chris Hecke) is an actor, pursuing his dreams at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Both sets of mothers and sons are very close; they keep in touch by writing letters (computers had not really come into their own in the ’80s).
“More than kisses, letters mingle souls,” said English metaphysical poet John Donne. Ms. Ross’ play is a demonstration of that axiom. Therefore, on split screens, we’ll see mother and son talking to each other by speaking the words of their letters. I realize this device may sound static or not dynamic, and in lesser hands, it could have been. But director McKerley is far too adroit to let this happen. The dialogue of the play is remarkably fluid and believable, as are the scenes on film.
Here is a telling quote from the playwright: “Love, M. is based on extensive conversations with mothers from the last pandemic [AIDS]. I wanted to understand those mothers and their stories before we lost them. Ultimately, I came home to a very personal story full of humor, humanity, and the healing power of love, acceptance, and the thing we all crave—connection.”
That’s a little too tidy a bow Ms. Ross has wrapped for this viewer, and I’ll tell you why. But first I must warn you that there are some spoilers coming. So if you want to see the show with virginal eyes, I’d stop reading now—but be sure you see the show—it’s extremely moving, and the cast is flawless.
But it seems to me that Ms. Ross is underplaying the loss of the sons, and they are the ones who die young, sometimes horribly, from the plague. (And I’m not saying both sons here die.) Moreover, the hideously judgmental things both mothers say to their sons are almost unforgivable.
Myrtle to her son Timothy: “You’re a good boy; I wish you were not gay…I’m not proud of your choice to be gay; please stop it—move out from that Michael.” Timothy: “If only it were a choice; I feel guilty I’ve caused you pain.”
Chris, a totally charming and loving young man, must listen (as it were) to his mother say “We cannot condone this lifestyle…why make this choice? Your father is furious.” Myrtle says to Timothy: “The preacher says that AIDS is God’s punishment for the sin of homosexuality…there is no such thing as a devout gay Christian!” (Is it any wonder that the suicide rate for LGBTQ teenagers is the highest of any age group?)
You see, I’m old enough to remember all of these hurtful attitudes from “loving, well-meaning” parents as I watched their sons die. Again, spoiler alert: I was not prepared to suddenly see Chris’ pale face blotched with the scars of Karposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer. Mr. Hecke, who can hardly speak at this point, will break your heart.
Human beings’ capacity for intransigence in changing their minds can be a dreadful thing. Of course, both mothers finally see the light. You want to shout “Hallelujah” when Terry Burrell’s Myrtle finally stands up in church to confront the preacher. And when Ms. Ross’ Deborah sees what her stubborn piety has wrought, she is pitiful.
Perhaps you can tell that this work (90 minutes) hit me like a ton of bricks. Please know that “Love, M.” is a finely wrought, well-intentioned drama. It deserves to be seen. It’s a perfectly cast, finely directed play. If I were you, I’d see it more than once. As it’s running all year, you have time.
To watch the play virtually, visit Horizontheatre.com/love-m.