Studying the Unthinkable — How Two Actors Prepared to Play Victims of the AIDS Epidemic

Playbill Pride   Studying the Unthinkable — How Two Actors Prepared to Play Victims of the AIDS Epidemic
 
As part of Playbill's 30 Days of Pride, Boyd Gaines and Bryce Pinkham, respective stars of the original production and recent revival of The Heidi Chronicles, discuss the groundbreaking play, one of the first Broadway shows to address AIDS.

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Several decades passed between Boyd Gaines' final performance in The Heidi Chronicles and Bryce Pinkham's first night in the recent revival of Wendy Wasserstein's award-winning play. But, listening to the two men discuss playing Peter Patrone, Heidi's gay best friend who works as a pediatrician, one might think very few years had gone by.

Wasserstein, who received the Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, modeled the character of Peter after several of her good friends. (The first line Peter speaks to Heidi is inspired by the first thing Christopher Durang said to Wasserstein in class at Yale Drama School.)

"[The character of] Peter is based on — I'm told — Peter Evans and Chris [Durang]… and Andre [Bishop]. And Peter, of course, was gone by the time we did the play," Gaines said.

Joan Allen and Boyd Gaines
Joan Allen and Boyd Gaines Photo by Gerry Goodstein

A four-time Tony Award winner, Gaines made his Broadway debut in the 1989 production of The Heidi Chronicles, earning his first Tony for Featured Actor in a Play in the role of the ambitious and witty aspiring pediatrician. Pinkham, a Tony nominee for A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder who has also appeared on Broadway in Ghost the Musical and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, starred in the recent revival alongside Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs. Tony Award winner Pam MacKinnon directed that revival, which played its final performance May 3.

Commonly considered a feminist work dramatizing the lives of women after the second-wave feminist movement, The Heidi Chronicles was also one of the first plays to address the subject of AIDS.

"The biggest single thing about [the play] is where it positioned itself in the AIDS crisis in New York City," Gaines said. "It's hard to think as late as '89, it was maybe the third play that addressed AIDS in any way."

The play's second act includes a moving scene between Heidi and Peter, set in the pediatric AIDS ward where Peter works. As the two discuss Heidi's desire to leave New York, Peter confides in Heidi about the number of friends he has lost to AIDS in the past year — and that he had just learned his former lover Stanley is now sick as well.

"One of our understudies just did Scoop at the Guthrie, so he had just finished it and came to work with us," Pinkham said. "He told us, 'Just wait until that scene and you'll hear people say AIDS in the audience.' And sure enough, he was right. Every few nights, we'll hear someone say, 'He has AIDS.' I think people just want to say it out loud."

"Nobody really knew much about it," Gaines recalled of the conversation about AIDS during the play's 1989 Broadway bow. "We were all reading 'And the Band Played On,'" a 1987 book by journalist Randy Shilts about the discovery and spread of HIV and AIDS. "I remember there would be reactions, particularly at the revelation of Stanley's illness... What I remember is how little people talked about AIDS."

While preparing to play Peter, Gaines conducted a great deal of research, including visiting pediatric AIDS wards and volunteering in the records department of the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

"That was maybe the most eye opening," he recalled of his time volunteering. "Every cliché was true and false. Every horrible scenario you could think of was true. It's one thing I'm grateful for the play being done again as a reminder of personal impact. "People were dropping like flies," he continued. "You turn around... Working in the records department, I had to call and do updates. Basically it was like, 'Are you still here? Are you getting treatment? Are you getting everything you need?' I was on such a mission that the worst-case scenario was to call someone and out them to their family."

For the play's 2015 revival, Pinkham also did much research, including conversing with people who lived through the 80s and 90s. "They all said the same thing: It was unlike anything that has happened since," Pinkham said. "Peter says, 'I've been going to these gatherings once a month.' Essentially for 15 months, he's lost a friend a month for a year or more. That's what it was. Suddenly your group of friends was just cut in half. If those were the people who were your friends and a lot of people in the theatre — an entire generation of theatre makers."

"I would say that's absolutely true," Gaines added. "It's hard not to think that the landscape would be... different had that not been the case."

Recalling the original Off-Broadway production's popularity, Gaines spoke of Wasserstein's "bridge-and-tunnel appeal," which attracted audiences from outside of New York to the performances.

"When I got cast at Playwrights, I think by the first week of rehearsal, the run at Playwrights was sold out," he said. "It's 200 seats. You could not get a ticket. We couldn't get house seats for our friends.

Both Gaines and Pinkham spoke highly of the educational impact of The Heidi Chronicles, which they said served as an eye-opener to many theatregoers.

Elisabeth Moss and Bryce Pinkham
Elisabeth Moss and Bryce Pinkham Photo by Joan Marcus

Recalling that coming out as gay in the 1970s was comparable to people thinking you were mentally ill, Pinkham said, "Part of what I think Wendy was helping us understand was 'I'm gay' means many different things. It doesn't mean what popular entertainment would have us believe as the cliché." Despite the years that have passed since The Heidi Chronicles first opened on Broadway, its topics continue to be relevant to audiences, both Gaines and Pinkham said.

"We're really not that far off from… that woman in California who campaigned and finally got the American Medical Association to finally take it out of the book of illnesses," Gaines said. "It's 2015, but we're not more than 30-40 years away from any of this stuff. I'm always confused by people who seem intelligent and think the other way. 'Can't you see what's in front of your face?'"

"The whole Indiana thing [about religious freedom legislation] came up right around the time we were opening. We were talking about it backstage, like, 'Are you kidding me? Come on! Join us in the 21st century, please!'' Pinkham added.

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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