Playwright: Sean Chandler and David Leeper. At: Pride Films and Plays at the Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 800-838-3006; www.brownpapertickets.com; $21-$25. Runs through: Dec. 16
There's not many gay bars that can boast of having stayed open continuously for 40 years. Co-playwrights Sean Chandler and David Leeper propose such an oasis, operating under the same name from the shadowy 1960s to the out-and-proud 2010s, its clientele over the decades representing a history of gay life in America. In this one-man show, Leeper assumes the role of performer to acquaint us with five of the ambassadors we would likely encounter at The Flash.
The Flash, you see, wasn't always the palatial gateway to the LGBT community, introduced at the beginning of the play on the occasion of its 2012 grand reopening, attended by mainstream press (some tracing its roots to neighborhood-guide handouts) in addition to owner Rod Mahoney's committed partner and their adopted daughter. Ah, but as our host fusses over preparations for the event, ghostly figures from the past emerge to remind us of the changes occurring just outside the doors of this sanctuary.
We meet blue-collar Richard in the 1960s, torn between love for his family and guilty forays into the darkness of back-room sex. In the 1970s, we hear transgender Miss Sparkle exhort her cross-dressing sisters to appreciate the tolerance enjoyed within The Flash's safe confines. During the 1980s, party-boy Derrick clings to the hedonistic lifestyle in a stubborn attempt to ignore the growing threat of AIDS. ("I came out just in time for a plague!" he laments.) Finally, the 1990s find schoolteacher Mona, devastated by her lesbian lover's lonely death in a hospital only permitting "relatives" to visit, crusading for marital and filial rights.
Their progress is not presented in chronological order, but in a kaleidoscopic mosaic requiring Leeper to switch back and forth between characters with often less than a sentence for the transition. Under the direction of David Zak, however, the vividly etched portraits never disintegrate into caricature, but remain distinct and immediately recognizable throughout the show's brief 80 minutes of playing time.
The stories make for an engaging and surprisingly epic narrative, and although none can be said to end happilycontented, perhaps, or resolute, but hardly cheerythere is empowerment in surveying the accomplishments of the outsiders who congregated for recreation, but grew to lead a social revolution. Did you anticipate the importance of your own first step into a gay bar?