By Patrick O’Brien
Either the musical finds the company, or the company finds the musical. Any which way that particular serenity works, the musical The Last Session as produced by Refuge Theatre Project is a perfect marriage of material, scope and sensibility.
It’s a well-crafted musical—and based on what’s on display, an unjustly overlooked one—and it can just as easily fit in one’s pocket as it can pack a punch and shake the rafters with sound and fury.
It certainly has fury to spare, conceived as it was in the mid-90s, when the AIDS virus was at its deadliest. And Gideon (Erik Pearson), a gospel-turned-pop songwriter, has seen enough friends and colleagues die of the disease to know what’s in store for him, and he doesn’t want to spend that time being a burden to loved ones, much less playing guinea pig to Big Pharma. So he gets the notion: Lay down one more album in one more recording session, then take his own life.
Of course, there are a few obstacles in the way of a timely session. There’s Gideon’s reliable backup singers Vicki (Elizabeth Bollar) — who has never suffered fools gladly, either while on the job or during her brief stint as Gideon’s wife — or Tryshia (Darilyn Burtley) — a diva who suffers fools even less and has her own reasons why she can’t ignore the disease and its impact on gay men.
There’s also an interloper: Buddy (Ryan Armstrong), an earnest Baptist singer-songwriter who desperately wants to cross over to pop just like Gideon, but is deeply perturbed by his idol’s out-and-proud homosexuality.
They may be backup singers, but they each own the space when they open up.
Above all, Pearson is perfect casting as Gideon. With a weary face and quizzical eyes, he’s somehow abrasively direct while also hiding just enough. Though the musical is ultimately hopeful, he injects the right amount of suspense into Gideon’s words and actions to make one wonder if he’ll follow through on his suicidal promise. (Benjamin Baylon, who plays Jim the studio engineer, is a sort of living clock counting down the time he has left left.) Pearson’s also the one musician, and a damn fine musician he is as he digs into Steve Schalchlin’s songsuite.
That extra pang in each of the songs comes from the fact that Gideon is a direct fictional counterpart for Schalchlin, who himself faced almost-certain death after being diagnosed with AIDS himself. Not entirely unlike William Finn and his brain, there was a breakthrough in his treatment and he got a new lease on life, from whence the songs for Last Session came. Also not entirely unlike Finn, he and bookwriter Jim Brochu, his life partner, give Gideon’s life-and-death struggle an unflinching frankness that’s also kind of funny when deployed in just the right places. (Schalchlin’s Twitter bio drily reads “a songwriter who was supposed to die but wrote a musical instead.”)
They also find sympathy and dignity in unexpected places. For instance, Buddy is not unexpectedly naïve and prone to what Gideon calls “theological chess matches” for which he’s unfit to play. But he and Gideon share the best and most complex song of the bunch, “Going It Alone,” when Buddy finds himself singing lyrics from the perspective of Gideon’s lover about the heartbreaking unbridgeable gap between the ailing and their caretaker. He doesn’t flip out like he would have earlier; he puts his beliefs aside, takes a breath, and gives earnest voice to that pain.
Even in an environment as up-close-and-personal as Atlas Arts Studio, it takes a deft hand to precisely sculpt such small but crucial moments like these, when someone has a flicker of doubt about their convictions and sureities and makes that first small step towards understanding and tolerance. Christopher Pazdernick — HIV-positive himself — is just the sculptor for the job, as his tenure with Refuge has proven. This production, however, is a particular high point.
The Last Session is a must for storefront theatregoers who want to get that much more intimate, their usual theatregoing emotions made that much more vivid. It’s for anyone who needs to hear that even in the most abject hopelessness, there may yet be — as Schachlin calls his astonishing continuing life — a “bonus round.”
Refuge Theatre Project presents “The Last Session” through December 2 at Atlas Arts Studio, 4809 N. Ravenswood Ave. More information and tickets are available here.