Phantom Planet

An intimate production addresses AIDS without mentioning its name, and ghosts fill the stage

No one goes into the theater to get rich. A lucky few manage to make a few bucks or even a living at it, but for most actors, practicing the trade is a labor of love. In many cities, this commitment to their craft has led Equity actors to produce their own plays under the auspices of their union, which allows them to work without pay. These "do-it-yourself" waiver shows let actors create their own opportunities to keep up their chops and play roles that otherwise might not come their way.

Strangely, though St. Louis has a fair number of Equity actors, a waiver show has never been produced here until now. Four members calling themselves the JVVC group -- director Joneal Joplin, actors Jerry Vogel and Daryl Vaughan, and stage manager John Contini (who have a combined total of over 100 years of theatrical experience) -- have mounted a polished and touching production of Steven Dietz's 1995 two-person play Lonely Planet in the intimate black-box theater at Kirkwood High School.

Without ever mentioning the word itself, the poetic Lonely Planet is about AIDS and its effect on the lives of those it touches, which is all of us. Vaughan plays Jody, who runs a small map shop in an unnamed city. His friend, the manic and mysterious Carl (Vogel), drops in occasionally to kibitz, play games and spin stories. Carl starts bringing chairs into Jody's already cluttered shop for storage, and as the play progresses, and more chairs pile up, we realize that they belonged to acquaintances of Carl and Jody's who have died of AIDS. Jody doesn't want to hear about them; in fact, he hasn't left his shop for weeks, preferring the safety of ignorance. It's up to the mercurial Carl to force Jody to face the truth of what's happening around them.

It's a nice piece of writing. In addition to the eloquent metaphor of the empty chairs (each one distinct, like its owner), Dietz introduces the cartographer's "Greenland problem," a distortion of the relative size of the continents on the flat map of the world that keeps longitude and latitude lines consistent. It's a wonderful analogy for the way we live our lives, preferring a world that is easier to navigate even if it's not reality. It helps takes the play beyond AIDS and make it universal; sooner or later, everyone must give up his denial mechanisms and face the truth of their mortality.

There's no greater theatrical pleasure than watching two fine actors in a room talking to each other, and Lonely Planet provides this pleasure in abundance. Vogel, excellent as the energetic, intense Carl, is always in the moment; he brings a reality and spontaneity to the character that grounds the play. He's also capable of quiet moments, such as his mesmerizing second-act monologue in which we learn the source of his adopted personas. By contrast, Vaughan's Jody handles his demons by keeping them in check, quieter but no less intense. When he waits on the phone for the results of his HIV test, Vaughan makes the suspense palpable and reaches that place that all actors long for -- utterly controlling the proceedings, getting the audience to hold its collective breath. Both actors handle the outcome of the phone call with the same understated simplicity and reality they bring to the rest of the play. Best known for his onstage work, Joplin is obviously an actors' director, letting his cast take their time when needed, orchestrating their ups and downs nicely.

Sometimes the play is a bit overwritten and the metaphors explained too handily, but, ironically, the script's flaws probably wouldn't be apparent with two lesser actors. Vaughan and Vogel use subtext, silences and gestures in ways that make some of the words superfluous.