For those of us who weren't around during the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, it can be hard to imagine how much terror the disease must have inspired, when no one quite knew what it was or how it was transmitted. As Is, from newish, gay-themed theater company Key Productions, does a fine job communicating the panic and uncertainty of those early days, as well as the desperate, against-all-odds compassion and courage of those who struggled to understand and fight the disease.
Saul (Michael Teufel) is a gay man living in New York City, seemingly the only man in his social sphere who hasn't come down with the swollen glands or chronic fatigue that indicate the onset of the disease. Saul and his lover, Rich (David Berkson), were the perfect couple until Rich left Saul for the "shallow, callow"—but very pretty—Chet (Andy Hillstrom). When Rich contracts HIV, he returns to live with Saul, who cares for him as he slowly weakens.
The core of the story—Rich's sickness and decline—is supplemented by a cast that shifts fluidly from role to role, as doctors, lovers, and family members who experience the illness in different ways. Teufel and Berkson work well together as long-suffering Saul and acerbic Rich—Teufel in particular endows Saul with enough human weakness that his sacrifices for Rich are all the more compelling.
The script is relentlessly complex, raising more questions than it answers. Is Rich's sister-in-law right to ask that Rich stay away from her children, when no one really understands what the disease is or how it is transmitted? What does it mean to come to terms with the inevitability of your own decline and death?
While the literal relevance of the script has diminished in an age when the virus is better understood (at least in the US), As Is reads today as an argument for basic human kindness, a testament to the bravery that treating others like human beings sometimes requires. It's a solid show, and it bodes well for future work from Key.