ON THE AFTERNOON OF WEDNESDAY, March 11, I went to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre to catch the last few minutes of my play The Inheritance. It was a matinee day, which meant a marathon—part one in the afternoon, part two in the evening. We did three of these each week, a grueling schedule for the actors (the play runs six and a half hours in total), but they loved being able to tell the entire story in one go, for an audience that had committed to being at the theater all day.
The ending of part one, in which we honor those whose lives came abruptly to an end during the AIDS epidemic, has always elicited a strong emotional reaction. On this day, it was noticeably heightened. Someone upstairs was sobbing loudly, and their unreserved expression of grief seemed to give permission to the rest of the audience to feel their own.
After the curtain came down, I stood in the back of the house, waiting for a friend who was at the show. I watched as people filed up the aisle in that now-unthinkable crush of proximity that once followed every live performance. Inside the theater, it felt like any other day at The Inheritance. Outside, there was the palpable sense that the bottom was about to fall out.
As we headed to dinner, my friend and I talked about the play and reminisced about the past—I met her in 1984 doing community theater together in my hometown. She was 26 and I was seven, and she quickly became an auntlike figure in my life. We spoke only obliquely about what was happening—her flight up from Florida had been nearly empty; her friends thought she was crazy for making the trip. We preferred instead to talk wistfully of the past and excitedly about the future. At that point, I did not know anyone who had contracted the virus. As I write this piece a month later, I know at least two dozen.
And I have lost a dear friend.
It’s tempting to compare the epidemic we are currently living through to the one that’s examined in The Inheritance—a contemporary reimagining of E. M. Forster’s Howards End in which the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early ’90s is examined through the experiences of young gay men living a generation removed from the worst moments of that cataclysm. There are, of course, glaring similarities between then and now—a callous president dangerously out of his depth; a disastrously inept federal response. But unlike then, this virus has not singled out one particular community to ravage—all our bodies are vulnerable. Perhaps the most useful comparison isn’t one of facts but rather one of feeling. Every conversation now seems to include the question, “Are you healthy?” We speak of our friends who have become sick. And daily, we watch the death toll rise. It seems as though the entire world is now experiencing a version of what it must have felt like to be a gay man in the 1980s.
As my friend and I walked back to the theater for part two, I had the sense, without being able to fully articulate it, that we might not continue our run to the final performance, scheduled for that coming weekend. That very day, a story had broken about an usher at a Broadway theater testing positive. The virus was rumored to be spreading through companies of certain shows. The post-show stage-door Playbill-signing ritual had been discouraged everywhere. And at my own play, access to backstage was now tightly restricted to cast and crew only. Even I was not allowed.
As I stepped inside the theater, I expected to encounter a half-empty house. But part two was completely full. From curtain up to curtain down, it was a brilliant performance—the actors all at the top of their games, their voices and bodies strong, their spirits high. Something told me not to duck out during the curtain call like I normally would, but instead to stay and watch, and to make a point of looking at each of the actors’ faces as they bowed.
On my way home, I texted Tom Kirdahy, our lead producer: “I think I just saw the final performance of The Inheritance.” He wrote back, “I hope you’re wrong, but I’m glad you were there tonight.”
The next morning, I received a text from the play’s director, Stephen Daldry: “Rumor is they are about to shut down Broadway for 30 days with immediate effect.” Around noon, my husband, a private school administrator, texted to tell me they had decided to close the school. Then, a little after 2 p.m, the announcement came that all Broadway theaters would be shuttered for at least 30 days.
I called Andrew Burnap, Sam Levine, and Kyle Soller—the trio of leads who had been with the show for more than two years. “We talked about it in our dressing room last night,” Andrew confessed. “We all felt we had just given our final performance.” We hung up, and they went to the Barrymore to clean out their dressing rooms.
My husband and I left the city that night for our house upstate, and I noted the irony of life imitating art: We were repeating the actions of two of my characters—leaving the city in the midst of an epidemic to quarantine in relative safety. We questioned whether we were engaging in an act of escape or one of self-protection. As a lifelong asthmatic, I was acutely aware of my vulnerability to the virus, but given how contagious the virus seemed to be, would we be any more protected upstate than we would in the city?
Our answer came swiftly. A few days after we arrived, I began to develop what I suspected were symptoms of the virus: low-grade fever, headache, and difficulty breathing. The fever and headaches vanished within a day, the breathing trouble persisted for a week. Testing was at that point nearly impossible to obtain where we live, and so I hunkered down at home.
It’s clear the virus had been spreading around New York for at least a month without detection. My earliest known exposure was March 2, when I had dinner with a group of friends, three of whom tested positive a week later. Three more people I directly encountered on March 11 and 12 also later tested positive. If what I had was COVID-19, any one of them could have given it to me. Or it’s possible I caught it from a stranger on the subway. Or it’s possible I didn’t contract it at all.
The only thing we do know for certain is that since there is no avoiding this thing, we must instead avoid one another. And so began for me and my husband the new reality that all of us have been living. We stayed at home, and we attempted to maintain a simulacrum of “normal” life. We read, we watched movies, we baked. (Well, my husband baked. I was the quality-control supervisor.) We FaceTimed with family and friends. Some days we obsessed over the news; other days we avoided it altogether. We watched Tiger King.
My husband worked around the clock to help prepare his students for remote schooling. I poured myself into a new film project—a period piece, set just before the start of World War I. I was grateful for the escape, just as the audience at our last performance seemed grateful for the escape we were providing them.
I celebrated a birthday in quarantine, a heartbreaking one. Word had come that morning from Tom that his husband and my mentor, Terrence McNally, was on a ventilator at a hospital in Sarasota. I went for a walk with my husband in the woods by our house, and by the time we returned, Terrence had died.
A little over a year ago, the composer Marc Shaiman, with whom I’m writing a musical adaptation of Some Like It Hot, saw The Inheritance in London. When he returned to New York, he texted me a photo—it was of the list he had kept during the 1980s of those he knew who were sick and those who had died from AIDS. Taking Marc’s cue, I opened a notebook and began to write the names of those I knew who had been sick from this new virus: Paul, Kevin, John, Bradley, Lukus, Ryan, etc. And then I wrote Terrence’s name. In parentheses next to it, I wrote, “Died.” I prayed in that moment it would be the only time I wrote that word in my notebook.
WHEN I STARTED THIS PIECE I started this piece in early April, the worst seemed to be ahead of us. The White House, unwilling for so long to face the reality of this epidemic, had predicted as many as 250,000 deaths—more than half the number we lost in World War II. That they later downgraded their estimate to 60,000 brought only cold comfort—it’s still greater than the number we lost in the Vietnam War.
It is impossible to imagine life returning to “normal” after this—but life will return. If there’s anything history teaches us, it’s that all calamities end; and when they do, one of the first things people do in the aftermath is to tell stories about the experience. As my character Eric Glass explains, “Human culture from time immemorial has been transmitted through stories . . . and perhaps as a result of these conversations, passed along in some cases for millennia, history is conveyed and cultures survived.”
I don’t know when theaters will reopen. I don’t know what it will look like when they do. No one does. The Broadway League plans to keep theaters closed till at least June 7, although many predict it may be longer than that. In the absence of certainty, some theaters are already looking for creative solutions. Friends tell me they’re already thinking about how to reconfigure their spaces to allow for social distancing within their auditoriums. The Williamstown Theatre Festival announced that its season will instead be recorded by Audible.
What is certain is that our hunger for stories has grown even more insatiable. Regional theaters streamed videos of canceled performances. The Instagram handle Theater Without Theater allowed creators to continue to share their work. National Theatre Live gave us the much-needed joy of watching One Man, Two Guvnors on YouTube. The original cast of Hamilton reunited one evening on Zoom.
People will gather once again to tell and be told stories. It is a fundamental part of human nature. We tell one another stories so that we will not feel alone in the world. We tell one another stories to validate our own experiences, to hear the sounds of recognition in the audience. We tell one another stories because it is through telling stories that we are able to say, “I lived through this; this is what happened to me.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue