The ascent of Harvey Bernard Milk’s reputation since his murder in 1978 has been a steady one, at least until a local politician’s suggestion that SFO be rebranded HBM - or more accurately, Harvey Milk International Airport. Letters to editors have been flying with yeas, nays, and alternative suggestions. It is unfortunate indeed that the gay civil rights pioneer’s reputation should be put to such an arguably irrelevant popularity contest. But a welcome, timely respite from this distraction is now on view at New Conservatory Theatre Center, where Dear Harvey has recently opened.
It may seem that the 2008 movie "Milk" was the dramatic capstone to a story that shook a city, a city with a history of being seismically shook, in such an epic way. But the upheaval was also profoundly personal for many far beyond the district that Milk represented on the Board of Supervisors. Patricia Loughrey’s "Dear Harvey" is all about the personal, not only in reactions to the events of Nov. 27, 1978, but also in the inspiration he provided others during his lifetime, and in how it shaped individual responses to such later crises as the onslaught of AIDS.
Commissioned by San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre in anticipation of the 30th anniversary of Milk’s and Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations, Loughrey interviewed a broad cross-section of men and women who knew Milk and/or were inspired by him to make changes in their own lives. These remembrances have been deftly woven together, and Loughrey has also included words from Milk’s own speeches and writings that ring with a timelessness that goes beyond local politics and issues of sexual orientation.
Director F. Allen Sawyer has guided his ensemble cast of six performers to strong emotional connections with the wide variety of personalities they must convey. While the play itself is basically a collage of conversations, Loughrey’s smart construction and Sawyer’s smooth direction create a kind of dramatic arc that builds through the play’s 90 minutes.
During the early part of the play, I tried to take notes on which actor was performing what excerpt from whose interview. But the dark scribblings became a deterrent to experiencing the content and flavors of what was being said, so there will be no individual citations of memorable moments. It will have to suffice to say that all performers use their multiple opportunities to meaningfully connect with the words that they have been assigned. This admirable cast is composed of Tierra Allen, David Bicha, Brian Patterson, Anna Smith, Courtney Walsh, and Aaron Wimmer.
Projections of photos largely by Milk colleague Dan Nicoletta on Devin Kasper’s utilitarian set help give real-life context to events being described. And while my arrival in San Francisco postdated by nearly two decades the pivotal years of the play, I cannot deny a personal swell of prideful connection to see pages of the Bay Area Reporter from the Milk era included in the projections.
Harvey Milk is generally described as the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States, and "Dear Harvey" concludes with an updated coda that features images of other LGBT figures who have since gone on to major elected office, including those who were sent to Washington in the November elections. "Openly Gay, and Openly Welcomed in Congress" read a front-page headline in a recent edition of The New York Times. Thank you, Harvey.
"Dear Harvey" will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Feb. 25. Tickets are $25-$45. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.