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By Bill Hirschman

No matter how serendipitously topical as it sounds, Daniel’s Husband is not so much about gay marriage, or marriage in general, or spousal health provider rights, or troubled childhoods or baggage-laden parental relations, all of which it certainly encompasses.

Michael McKeever’s world premiere play at Island City Stage is an indelible and inarguable exhibit that love between human beings is unquantifiably precious and inarguably valid — regardless of sexuality.

This powerful production affirms proudly that love must be valued by all humanity as being worthy of not simply societal recognition, but honor and veneration. Indeed, the play’s effectiveness is rooted in the universality of seeing those in love contending with extreme situations.

The injustice of homosexuals being denied the same legal rights as heterosexual couples may be a hot button issue at the moment, but it is not a ground-breaking revelation in 2015. What McKeever, director Andy Rogow and a superb cast working at the considerable top of their game accomplish is make flesh before us the incontrovertibly wrenching emotional tableau in which love might not trump all.

The play opens on a dinner party thrown by Mitchell Howard (Antonio Amadeo), a quick-witted articulate writer of gay-centric works, and his partner of seven years, Daniel Bixby (Alex Alvarez), a successful architect, amateur gourmet cook and vinyl record enthusiast. They are hosting their old friend Barry Dylon (Larry Buzzeo), who is Mitchell’s agent. Filling out the quartet is Dylon’s latest in a long line of short-term relationships, Trip (Kristian Bikic), an earnest and amiable home health caregiver who is 20-plus years younger than Barry and in a bit in awe of this trio.

After pleasant banter, Trip asks Daniel and Mitchell why they aren’t married, now that it’s possible. It’s a sore subject. Since the couple met, Daniel has wanted to get married “because we can” and Mitchell has politely but vehemently resisted. Mitchell intractably holds forth about the needless affirmation of marriage if a relationship is as true as theirs.

MITCHELL: An antiquated contract based more on financial and communal gain than the result of any true emotional connection…. An archaic institution – forged in that crucible of all things evil: religion – that, over the years, has been distorted into some putti-infested, Victorian-laced, curly-cue covered concept created by Madison Avenue for the sole purpose of – once again – making money.

Later Mitchell asks what is gained by marriage.

TRIP: I don’t know if it’s a matter of gaining anything. It’s just . . . we should be able to do it if we want. Just like everyone else. Just like any average American.
MITCHELL: AH! And that’s my argument!
TRIP: It is?
MITCHELL: When did it become so important to the gay community to be like “everyone else?” When did “everyone else” and “average” become things to aspire to?

During the evening, Daniel bemoans the imminent week-long visit of his widowed mother Lydia (Laura Turnbull) who lives alone with a large bank account in an empty house and an emptier life. Later, when Lydia actually arrives, she seems cheery, supportive of the relationship of “her two boys,” but she has a bent for saying something judgmental and damaging without consciously meaning to.

SPOILER ALERT IN THIS PARAGRAPH: During a later argument with Mitchell, Daniel suffers a complicated form of a stroke that leaves him fully functional mentally but unable to move a muscle. Lydia, who was a cold mother, sees a way to give her life meaning and make up for her past sins by claiming a blood relative’s right to take Daniel home with her. Mitchell obviously opposes her, but has no legal standing because they did not get married and postponed signing drawn-up documents making each other their surrogate health care decision maker. The plot continues from there through a painfully logical and tragic arc.

McKeever, South Florida’s veteran triple threat, has earned a reputation for snappy repartee which probably reached its zenith in this season’s Hollywood satire Clark Gable Slept Here. But he has also shown time and again a talent for incisive analysis and detailed observation. These characters are never stereotypical anyone or anything, confounding audience expectations.

For instance, this exchange.

MITCHELL: I’ll ask again. What is to be gained?
BARRY: There’s a lot to be gained.
MITCHELL: Name me one thing.
TRIP: The opportunity to not be singled out as —
MITCHELL: But I like being singled out. I like being different. I love being unique in a world that’s full of “normal.” As a gay man, I relish not being like everyone else. I always have. And it makes me cringe just a little bit, whenever I hear a gaggle of insipid queens – desperate to assimilate – going on about how they’d cater their gay wedding,

McKeever has gifted us over the years with many enjoyable evenings from Stuff to Moscowto Suite Surrender. But Daniel’s Husband slingshots him to an even more accomplished level.

Island City’s  Producing Artistic Director Rogow is his perfect partner, precisely choreographing the steady driving pace. He helps the cast excavate the emotional depths and the fact that most are delivering some of their best work ever must derive in part from Rogow’s leadership.  The play’s tone switches among wry banter, polemic diatribes, declarations of affection and several other modes, but it still feels all of one piece under Rogow’s direction.

Every member of the cast inhabits their character with naturalistic acting so convincing that the audience is simply eavesdropping. Especially memorable is Alvarez’s even-handed interior monologue after the stroke, describing almost amiably what has happened to him from a medical standpoint and quietly describing the nightmarish condition it has left him in.

But then there’s Amadeo. We’ve been watching Amadeo for nearly 20 years, reveling in his performances in The Pillowman, The Elephant Man, Intimate Apparel, A Round-Heeled Womanand The Unseen. But his work here illustrates that he now commands an even higher level of skill and a mastery of communicating a tumult of passion under a blithe exterior. Mitchell’s guilty pain as the unintended consequences of his decision come home to roost is painful to watch.

Island City’s coalescing house creative team is in fine form as always including David Hart’s sound, Peter A. Lovello’s costumes, Preston Bircher’s subtle lighting changes and Michael McClain’s tasteful stylish apartment set.

Only twice have we left a staged reading so moved that we went into the lobby insisting that somebody produce a full version. One was Christopher Demos-Brown’s Fear Up Harsh done by Zoetic Stage in 2013. The second was the reading of Daniel’s Husbandwhen McKeever and Rogow tested it in January through Jan McArt’s developmental series at Lynn University. The cast is intact except for Turnbull replacing Barbara Bradshaw who is working in North Carolina this summer. Often when a critic goes that far out on a limb, he’s terrified that the full production won’t measure up. In this case, our hopes and expectations were gloriously fulfilled.

(Full disclosure: McKeever and I are among the co-hosts on Iris Acker’s weekly program on BECON-TV Spotlight on the Arts.)

Daniel’s Husband from Island City Stage is performed at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale, through June 28. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Runs about 90 minutes with no  intermission. Tickets are $30; call 954-519-2533 or visit www.islandcitystage.com.

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