Remembering playwright Terrence McNally and the AIDS epidemic

The recent loss of American playwright Terrence McNally to the coronavirus made me think of the AIDS epidemic that frightened everyone, especially the LGBT community. It made me remember that during theater intermission people would dig into their pockets to contribute to the actors who went row to row collecting for AIDS research. We beat AIDS, and we will beat the coronavirus. Unfortunately, we will have to do it without McNally, who died in a hospital in Sarasota, Fla., at the age of 81. Don’t think I’m comparing AIDS with COVID-19. The virus is much more widespread. It is after all a pandemic.

McNally’s passing also made me wonder why so many people wait for people to die before saying good things about them. As a critic, I get the opportunity to praise playwrights, directors, actors and designers all the time, but with this COVID-19 looming over all of our heads, shouldn’t we be praising all the good we know about each other? We need to be more generous with our thanks and praise.

With the news of McNally’s death due to complications of the coronavirus, celebrities immediately took the airwaves praising his works. According the Associated Press (AP), F. Murray Abraham, Oscar-winning actor, said McNally was “like a fountain he keeps on writing and writing.” Lin Manual Miranda called him “a giant in our world,” and “Next to Normal” composer Tom Kitt said he considers McNally “irreplaceable.”

McNally was openly gay and wrote plays that addressed issues concerning people’s connections to each other including heterosexual and homosexual love. He also penned “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,” which focuses on AIDS. This play is set on Fire Island, where two couples spend a weekend in a house inherited by one of the women whose brother died from AIDS.

Most area theatergoers are quite familiar with McNally’s works, especially “Master Class,” and “Ragtime,” which have been performed locally to packed houses. Throughout McNally’s career he managed to earn four Tony Awards. “Kiss of the Spider Woman” was his first Tony followed by works such as “Love! Valour! Compassion.” At the 2019 Tony Award ceremony, he received a lifetime achievement award. He also won an Emmy.

In addition to these works he is credited with many Broadway musical adaptations. These works include “The Full Monty,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and the musical reworking of the film “Anastasia.”

What I didn’t know was that McNally, according to the AP, was hired by John Steinbeck to be a tutor and guardian to his sons. That was when McNally was at the Actors Studio. Imagine having a tutor like that! Imagine being hired by novelist John Steinbeck!

His first play “And Things That Go Bump in the Night” didn’t get much praise, but his play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” which is a moving and beautiful romantic play about a waitress and short order cook, not only earned praise from critics, but was adapted into a film featuring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.

In remembering McNally, it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to remember AIDS. We conquered that and we will conquer the coronavirus as well. Be safe and stay well.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: