Michael Leeds Breathes New Life Into 'Love! Valour! Compassion! at Island City Stage

Chad Darnell and Michael Scott Ross in


Chad Darnell and Michael Scott Ross in "Love Valour Compassion"

Aaron Krause, Theater Critic

While the 2023-24 South Florida theater season has just begun,  Island City Stage’s (ICS) current emotionally compelling, production of the late, legendary playwright Terrence McNally’s classic masterwork, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” will most likely remain one of the best of the season.

The production, which features top-notch direction, acting, and design work, is onstage through Sunday, Nov. 5 in ICS’s intimate space in Wilton Manors. 

But it may be tough to secure tickets. In fact, ICS Artistic Director Andy Rogow reported on opening night that the show had sold out 85 percent of its run. And later, in a Facebook post, Rogow noted that just 40 tickets remained for the rest of the show. That number may be less as you read these words.

“Could an extension be imminent?” Rogow asked rhetorically. (Another show was just added for Monday, Nov. 6.)

Undoubtedly, such questions are arising, in part, because director Michael Leeds guides an impressive seven-person cast. It features performers who excel as a well-oiled ensemble and as individual actors who have created distinct, credible, three-dimensional, sympathetic characters. And to their credit, they avoid stereotypes.

The performers are Chad Darnell, Robert Koutras, Bruce Linser, Saul Mendoza, Christopher Michaels, Michael Scott Ross, and Matthew Salas. Certainly, as the actors powerfully portray their characters, you wish to spend time with them and get to know them. That is important, because “Love! Valour! Compassion!” is a roughly three-hour play (with two intermissions) that covers one summer in these individuals’ lives during the mid-1990s in upstate New York.

“Love! Valour! Compassion!,” while short on plot, is a richly layered, compelling, character-driven piece with just a smidgen of sentimentality.

The Tony Award-winning play examines the relationships between several gay men who work in live theater. In addition, they have become intimate with each other over the years. In ICS’s cozy space, we feel like flies on the wall as we observe them converse, make love, argue, forgive each other, and express their dreams, fears, and hopes.

Each act takes place in the country lakehouse belonging to fictional long-time New York dancer and choreographer Gregory Mitchell and his lover, Bobby Brahms.

Buzz Hauser, played by Christopher Michaels in Island City Stage's


Buzz Hauser, played by Christopher Michaels in Island City Stage's "Love! Valour! Compassion! through Nov. 5. (Photo by Matthew Tippins)

Mitchell is approaching middle age and fears that he is losing his creative touch. However, he remains committed to completing at least one final piece of choreography before his career ends.

But the characters have more than creative concerns on their minds. The piece takes place in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and a couple of the characters are stricken with AIDS. The specter of memorial services for themselves and their friends hovers over them like the dark clouds that dot the sky through part of the play.

“I just don’t want to be dead and forgotten in my own lifetime,” one character states, a line that helps give the play a Chekovian-quality. It’s a fear that is hardly specific to the play’s time period; we all want to feel like we matter in life and contributed something to the world. And while, in 2023, people are living longer with AIDS thanks to advances in treatment, our recent experiences with COVID make us sensitive to health problems such as AIDS.

With wide, blazing dark eyes, Koutras lends Mitchell an intensity and concentration that suggests the veteran dancer/choreographer is doggedly determined to complete at least one final work of art. While Mitchell suffers from a speech impediment, he still moves gracefully, and Koutras’s deft physical performance beautifully conveys this. Koutras also makes palpable Mitchell’s frustration when he is suffering from a block while trying to work creatively.

Meanwhile, Mendoza nails Fornos’ youthful verve and virility and imbues the character with passion and confidence. When Fornos says “I love myself,” and goes on to explain why, he doesn’t come across as arrogant or boastful. Rather, we admire his zest for life and his self-confidence because Mendoza portrays Fornos as a likable character.

As Mitchell’s boyfriend, Bobby Brahms, Salas turns in one of the strongest performances. The actor’s wide, intense eyes are sometimes moist with dreaminess, romance, and other intense emotions, and Salas’s expressive voice helps lend an impressive authenticity to his performance.

Matthew Salas and Saul Mendoza in


Matthew Salas and Saul Mendoza in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (Photo by Matthew Tippins)

As Brahms, Salas also conveys a strong determination to not let the character’s blindness define him or get him down.

One actor plays identical British twins John and James Jeckyll, who never technically appear onstage together. Bruce Linser clearly differentiates one from the other. John is a bitter, sarcastic Englishman who failed as a playwright. As a result, he works as Mitchell’s rehearsal pianist. In addition, John Jeckyll possesses the annoying habit of reading others’ private journals without their permission (he explains why in a soliloquy).

Linser, an American actor who nails a British accent as both characters, makes John a cynical man without turning him into a hateful individual. Through Linser’s performance, we sense that John possesses some redeeming qualities. He’s just a curmudgeon and hasn’t gotten over his past failures.

Contrastingly, Linser imbues James Jeckyll, a costumer for the National Theatre, with wit, charm, generosity, and a touching vulnerability.

Christopher Michaels is believably lively and sarcastic as HIV positive costumer Buzz Hauser, a character who is the life of the party at the Upstate New York home. Michaels is impressively naturalistic in the role, credibly portraying a musical theater enthusiast who seems obsessed with the artform. Michaels’ playful and vibrant Hauser buzzes around the house quoting from shows and singing.

To his credit, Michaels also unmasks the vulnerable side to Hauser. Indeed, his happiness and liveliness mask his fear about his future. We sense his fear and feel for him as a result of Michaels’ strong performance.

In contrast to Michaels’ lively Hauser, Darnell is mellow as accountant Arthur Pape. Pape and attorney Perry Sellers (Michael Scott Ross) are in a long-term relationship (they’re celebrating 14 years together) and consider themselves role models for other couples. As Darnell and Ross portray them, Pape and Sellers are believable as long-time boyfriends who bicker and finish each other’s sentences. While the two argue, they are also impressively committed to each other.

Christopher Michaels and Bruce Linser in Island City Stage's


Christopher Michaels and Bruce Linser in Island City Stage's "Love! Valour! Compassion!" (Photo by Matthew Tippins)

The multi-award-winning, versatile McNally, one of the most seminal and prolific playwrights of the 20th century, writes with eloquence, humor, honesty, and heart. Many have credited him with introducing mainstream audiences to gay characters who are often successful, realistic, and in healthy relationships.

McNally, who died in 2020 at age 81 from complications of COVID, has written about diverse themes and topics. They include opera, the classic arts, living as a gay man in modern times, queer culture, as well as the difficulties of and urgent need for human connection. The characters in “Love! Valour! Compassion!” exhibit traits such as those that give the play its title. Certainly, in today’s age of division, disrespect, and discord, we could all use some love, valor, and compassion in our own lives. Another reason why the characters win us over is that they find a way to forgive each other.

In addition to forgiveness, the play covers themes such as variations on love and friendship, trust and betrayal, redemption, and the human spirit’s resilience.

Meanwhile, the play’s construction possesses a cinematic-like quality that is sure to keep audiences attentive. Specifically, short scenes shift fluidly from one into another. Time moves back and forth, while characters take turns interacting in scenes and turning to the audience to narrate portions of the play’s events.

In addition to including narration and soliloquies, the play’s Brechtian quality includes a call for minimal scenery. This forces us to use our imagination, which we must do more so in live theater than in film. Also, the bare bones set allows us to focus our attention on the characters and the play’s themes.

The physical world of ICS’s production features little more than a series of platforms and staircases (Rob Wolin is the scenic designer). And David Hart’s deft sound design includes realistic sounds that help us fill in the blanks. Also, the performers mime actions such as driving a car and swimming in a body of water.

In terms of lighting, it is appropriately bright for realistic scenes that happen during the present. But for scenes that feature soliloquies and romantic occurrences, the lighting is properly dimmer.

Speaking of romance, intimacy director and choreographer Nicole Perry has helped the performers enact realistic scenes of intimacy while keeping the actors safe.

Thanks to costume designer W. Emil White’s character-appropriate outfits, the clothes that the performers wear tell us something about their characters.

For instance, Ramon Fornos, the play’s only Hispanic character, wears a shirt that mentions his hometown of Puerto Rico.

Commitment to excellence is something that is evident in ICS’s first production of a McNally play. And it may not be the last – in his program note, Rogow noted that ICS patrons and supporters have requested that the company do more classic LGBT+ plays. “You asked and we responded!” Rogow wrote.

Island City Stage’s production of Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” runs through Nov. 5 at the company’s intimate venue, 2304 Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. For tickets and information, go to

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