Lips Together, Teeth Apart Opens on World AIDS Day


Terrence McNally wrote Lips Together, Teeth Apart as his response to the Reagan administration’s apathy during the fight against AIDS, as well as the ignorance and conspiracy theories surrounding the then new and unknown virus.

McNally has described "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" as a play about love "in the middle" of relationships. For him, it belongs between the first flush of romance, so thrillingly captured in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (focused on two lonely, middle-aged people, whose first date ends with their tumbling into bed) and the tragic end of love that he darkly depicted in The Lisbon Traviata (revolving around fans of opera singer Maria Callas, and their gay relationships).

I was really too young to remember much about the beginnings of the epidemic, but I do remember the reaction to it. I remember hearing rumors that the infection could be contracted via toilet seats, or kissing, or even tears. Some friends said they were going to stop having sex altogether. The religious right proclaimed it God’s wrath on gay people.

When Rock Hudson, I was a college sophomore in Michigan, and it seemed so implausible that the actor, a leading man and prominent heartthrob of Hollywood’s Golden Age, had succumbed to the “gay disease.”

I remember the first time I knew of someone in my circle dying of AIDS. I was directing a play at the former Actor’s Playhouse of Nashville on West End in mid-1992 when I was told that a mutual friend, who had performed in several productions at the Playhouse, had recently passed. His death seemed to be followed by many in quick succession. The Nashville theatre community was pretty small, and even one death had a devastating impact.

This May, I began reading plays for a quartet of actors I wanted to cast, and Lips Together, Teeth Apart was looking for. Four middle-aged actors who portray two straight couples spending July 4 on Fire Island, the small, but internationally-known, barrier island off of the coast of New York’s Long Island, which is home to two upscale and thriving gay resort towns: Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines.

Once I had formally offered the roles to Phil Brady [who has since been replaced by Bowd Beal due to medical emergency], Trin Blakely, Doug Allen, and Kathleen Jaffe and after we’d had our initial readthrough and discussion, I had an epiphany as to the social importance of presenting this play, especially in an election year during which our current President has staked out reactionary social positions to incite a volatile debate that serves to enliven his political base.

Many parallels could easily be drawn between the characters on the page and this political base who are willfully ignorant about contemporary social issues. The four characters—Sally and Sam Truman, Sam’s sister, Chloe Haddock, and her husband, John—are often unlikable. They spew their hatred and homophobia; their dislike is softened only by their internal monologues which reveal they are all drowning in their own pain and misery and a desperate sense of individual isolation.

The three acts of the play are set at morning, noon and night on July 4, and through the long day's journey into night, we discover that Sally feels very guilty about never fully acknowledging the sexual orientation of her brother and that he died of AIDS without being surrounded by family; that Sally and John had a brief affair; that John has cancer; and, that all four feel ambivalent about their gay neighbors, whom they continually castigate in private conversation.

Certainly the dialogue is peppered with humdrum stuff about what everyone wants to eat, how they want it prepared, what they're wearing, and what they're going to do with the kids (who were left with a baby-sitter)—who insist, by long-distance, on going on a hayride in the rain.

But shot through it all, as a reminder of the larger picture, is an unseen gay swimmer in the distance, who swims off into the ocean and never returns. That swimmer epitomizes giving up on life. He forces the couples to come to terms with the parts in themselves that fear death and the parts that would like to embrace it.

In a conversation with the original cast published in the New York Times, Swoosie Kurtz (the original Sally) told Mervyn Rothstein, “The play is at least in part about responsibility. Specifically, the responsibility of heterosexuals to reach out to the gay community in this time of AIDS, to not just turn a blind eye to the situation. But more universally, the play is about whether you can just watch somebody in trouble and think there isn’t anything you can do. You can at least try.”

Only a week later, David Richards, in his Times article “Two Shapes of Comedy – Tragic and Spoof,” called the play “fascinating and ultimately quite touching. He noted that the couples were “out of sync with one another”, retreating into their own private activities, and were self-absorbed. Further, they are out of place, in a house where one of the characters’ (Sally’s) brother has died of AIDS.

New York Times theatre critic Anita Gates wrote that “the theme of the weekend is mortality (the insect-electrocuting device hangs somewhere on the line between metaphor and parallel) as well as isolation and the exhausting but occasionally fulfilling pursuit of happiness.”

In addition to the parallels drawn with contemporary political distinctions, I knew I wanted to schedule the play when it would have the most impact. I reached out to the Barbershop Theater and we were in luck: our play could coincide with World AIDS Day, observed December 1 every year since 1988.

World AIDS Day is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection. To that end, Rogue Stage Ensemble has partnered with Nashville CARES, which will give a presentation during intermission on Saturday, December 1.

We feel very humbled to partner with Nashville CARES, as our production is the organizations only event for this year’s World AIDS Day. We will pass the plate in hopes of procuring a few extra dollars to benefit their very important mission.

As part of our rehearsal process, we requested a representative from Nashville CARES engage the cast in a discussion. Lisa Binkley, Associate Director of Prevention, and Tina Ross, Safely First Specialist, visited rehearsal on November 1 and discussed prevention, safety, testing, and seroconversion (the time period during which a specific antibody develops and becomes detectable in the blood after initial infection).

We ended the evening with discussion of statistics and I think we were all stunned: Nashville is 7th in the nation for new HIV infections; first in the nation for testing positive for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea; and, most alarming -- 50% of all black gay males test positive for HIV.

Rogue Stage Ensemble, in special arrangement with Dramatist’s Play Service, will be presenting the play November 30 through December 16, 2017, at the Barbershop Theater (4003 Indiana Avenue). Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15.00 in advance through, or $18.00 at the door on the day of the performance.

Throughout the run of the play, Nashville Cares will have a table set up for information, and, at our December 1 performance, Nashville CARES’ Lisa Binkley will give a presentation and we will take up a collection to benefit their mission. For other performances, we will continue to take donations.



Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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