Sometimes the stars align just right, and it’s best to follow the lighted path.
It’s been five years since longtime Savannah artist DJ Queenan and Warren Heilman formed Bangers and Mash Theatre Works. It’s been almost as long since they put on a play. After their initial production, 2013’s “Falsettos,” the company went on hiatus, due to other obligations.
Queenan, the director of fine and performing arts at Savannah Country Day School and former theater director for the city of Savannah, recently saw an opportunity to revive the company with a production of “Lips Together, Teeth Apart," which runs for two weekends starting June 22.
Two of his friends, Kim Trammell and Renee DeRossett, are on the board for the Tybee Arts Association. They are both actresses as well. There was an opening in the Jim Ingham Black Box Theater’s schedule, and along with with his desire to work with his friends on a play he is passionate about, Queenan revived Bangers and Mash.
“Sometimes, you just have to listen to the universe,” Queenan said. “Right now, the universe is saying, hopefully, it’s the right time to do it again. It’s a pop-up theater company right now. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s what it is.
“It’s a very intimate space,” Queenan said of the black box. “I was always the guy who wanted to direct theater that was like three actors, two chairs and a naked light bulb. I ended up being the guy who directs the big musical. That’s what my career has been for the last 14 years; that’s mostly what I did. Tybee Arts Association has been incredibly welcoming and filled with integrity.”
Bangers and Mash was created as a vehicle for Queenan to produce works with adult themes, giving him a chance to expand creatively. The company has largely focused on plays that deal with LGBT issues and especially those that focus on the AIDS epidemic, a subject close to Queenan’s heart.
“The way Bangers and Mash Theatre works, it’s more of the focus of the stories that I feel need to be told,” Queenan said. “Particularly stories related to HIV and AIDS and issues that I continue to work out in my personal life — being from the New York/New Jersey area in the 1980s and '90s, when AIDS kind of devastated the gay community. They’re very personal stories to me. Testaments of the survival. People I don’t want to be forgotten.”
Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” premiered Off Broadway in 1991. The play is set at a beach house on Fire Island, where a brother and sister with their spouses have come to enjoy the Fourth of July weekend. The two straight couples have landed in the middle of a gay community, which becomes a fifth character as the couples struggle with their internal worlds.
Sally Truman (Trammell) inherited the house from her brother, David, who died of AIDS. Sally and her husband, Sam (Patrick Saxon), his sister Chloe Haddock (DeRossett) and her husband John (Gary B. Shelby), are all wrestling with their own demons, which are explored through monologues and their interactions with each other and the gay community around them. Although the play is heavy-handed, it has moments of levity.
“The great thing about ‘Lips Together, Teeth Apart,’ is that it is, at times, very funny, but it’s not a very funny story,” Queenan said. “It’s not a funny story, and it deals with a lot of the coarseness of human nature.
"Terrence McNally is somewhere between Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. I don’t think either of them made us laugh very much, and that’s the component that Terrence McNally has. He gives us the opportunity to laugh at ourselves while dealing with our issues.
“He’s a living playwright genius,” Queenan continued. “He doesn’t deal solely with the gay and lesbian community, but he deals a lot with the gay community. You could have handed me any one of his plays and I would have directed it. But this particular play I like, because, first it’s a small cast, which I adore. It’s a good vehicle for intimate theater. A unit set, just one location, the whole play takes place over the period of a day. Things like that just really work.”
The play’s original production, which starred Christine Baranski, Swoosie Kurtz, Nathan Lane and Anthony Heald, earned critical acclaim, an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award. It enjoyed a limited revival on Broadway in 2010, starring Patton Oswalt, Megan Mullally, Lili Taylor and David Wilson Barnes.
“The purpose of Bangers and Mash is not to make money,” Queenan said. “It is to be an artist and hopefully say some things and not lose my shirt.”