Written by Steven Dietz in 1993, Lonely Planet explores the friendship of two men living through the height of the AIDS epidemic. Set in a cozy map store—skillfully staged at AS220’s intimate Black Box Theater—the unlikely friends, Jody (Jim O’Brien) and Carl (Chris Plonka) must distort reality to deal with horror of their friends dying from AIDS.
On the surface, the pair could not be more different. The professorially dressed Jody is calm and organized, while the colorfully clad Carl is manic, brash, and a bit all over the place. Both characters alter their respective realities to maintain some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos and death that surrounds them.
Jody lives in his map store and has not ventured outside of this shop’s four walls for some time. His friend Carl creates elaborate lies and takes on different personas to avoid life’s tumult. Unlike Jody, who has shut people out, Carl desperately tries to cling onto his lost loved ones by adding a chair to Jody’s store each time someone dies. Eventually, the small space is scattered with chairs of the deceased; taking on the appearance of a graveyard, rather than a store.
Although Carl recognizes the deceased, Jody doesn't attend funerals or even acknowledge that his friends are dying. Jody uses one particular map on his shop’s wall to illustrate his increasing isolation. In one moving moment, Jody gives the audience a history lesson on the Mercator Projection map, which is the map we commonly see in grade school. The map depicts Greenland as equal in size to South America—an error that Jody dubs the “Greenland problem.” The map's distortions serve as a metaphor for the distortions in Jody’s life, which he has created.
The two-man cast of O’Brien and Plonka do a great job of creating compelling characters that the audience really cares about. In the first act, Plonka’s acting appears a bit too eccentric and over-the-top, but these concerns recede in act two when we learn more about Carl’s motives and his desire get his friend Jody back out in the real world. O’Brien does a fine job in his role all the way through and especially succeeds in the play’s quiet and subtle moments.
It is in these subtle instances that the play really flourishes. There is one particularly moving scene in which Jody is on the phone awaiting his HIV test results in which the actors truly shine. Although very little is said, the tension, fear, and anticipation that the actors create with their body language and facial expressions is palpable.
Kudos also goes to the play’s director Michael Ducharme who expertly juxtaposes absurdist moments with poignant and emotional scenes between Carl and Jody.
Although we have come leaps and bounds as a society since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, Lonely Planet remains as relevant as ever due to its themes of isolation, friendship, and perceptions of reality. In a world of “fake news,” constant distortions of the truth, and an over-reliance on social media, this beautifully poignant tale of friendship serves as a reminder that sometimes we need to be forced back into the real world. May we all have a friend like Carl who is willing to fabricate a couple of stories in order to push us to take on life’s difficult moments and embrace the unknown.
If you’d like to see Counter-Productions Theatre Company’s Lonely Planet, there are three dates remaining on May 5th and 6th at 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2pm at AS220’s Black Box Theater. For more information, click here.
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