HIV-related stories have made for some of the most powerful dramas of the last 20 years, and the stage production of Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir “Holding the Man” now joins them. Unlike the broad political canvas painted by Tony Kushner in “Angels in America,” Conigrave’s story is exquisitely raw and personal, something to which Tommy Murphy’s adaptation adheres faithfully.
Story charts how Conigrave hooks up with John Caleo, who becomes his partner of 15 years, at an elite Jesuit college in Melbourne.
It unpacks the dismay of the Conigrave family and devastation of the Caleos upon learning their sons are gay, then proceeds to track Conigrave’s transition to the wide world of the university, where he stumbles into a gay rights group and begins meeting other guys. He eventually moves to Sydney, where, in a lovely twist, he was for a time a Griffin player.
In act two both young men learn they are HIV-positive, eventually succumbing over the next decade to full-blown AIDS.
The Conigrave character is both narrator and lead, while Caleo is idealized and eventually idolized when he dies two years before his lover.
Murphy’s second play for Griffin and helmer David Berthold’s last as artistic director of the company is a theatrical triumph because the material is so incredibly strong.
The beautiful leads confidently guide a spellbound audience through fumbling adolescence and wide-eyed young adulthood, as the four other players swirl around them embodying a dizzying array of bit parts with aplomb.
Exhaustive costumes and props overcompensate for the constraints of the simple stage, none of which is really necessary — this production would be just as powerful on a naked stage but possibly not as entertaining.
While the extended season sold out soon after opening, a monthlong encore will be staged in March to coincide with Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras festival.