Playwright McNally celebrates festival, and nuptials
WASHINGTON — Terrence McNally was writing about gay divorce long before gay marriage was ever legal.
His 1980s play “The Lisbon Traviata’’ takes audiences from the hilarious highs of friends bonded over opera and then plunges them to the agony of a shattered relationship waiting at home.
The play was written at the height of the AIDS crisis, and the prospect of being alone during that nightmare was far worse for some than clinging to a bad match and pretending it was good. He wasn’t writing role models, McNally said recently. He was writing about real people, warts and all.
In the city where this play has been revived 25 years later as part of a monthlong festival, McNally is drafting a new part of his own story.
Yesterday, the 71-year-old playwright and his partner, Tom Kirdahy, 46, exchanged vows on the banks of the Potomac River. Never mind their 25-year age difference, McNally said. They don’t feel it, except for their tastes in music.
During a small ceremony under a tree blooming with white flowers, Kirdahy read from a scene in McNally’s play “Corpus Christi,’’ in which a gay Christ-like figure named Joshua marries two apostles.
“It is good when two men love as James and Bartholomew do and we recognize their union,’’ Kirdahy read. “Love each other in sickness and in health.’’
Kirdahy, a lawyer and Broadway producer, choked up as he recalled seeing the play before meeting McNally.
“The first time I saw it, I knew that I could love the writer of those words,’’ he said. Once they met, McNally said, it was love at first sight.
Since then, they have battled McNally’s lung cancer and worked together, as well as apart. After nearly 10 years and a clean bill of health, it feels like a lifetime, McNally said.
Actress Tyne Daly, currently starring in McNally’s “Master Class’’ at the Kennedy Center festival, served as a witness at the sunlit wedding and read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Actors John Glover and Malcolm Gets, both starring in “Traviata,’’ also looked on.
The Rev. George Walker of the People’s Congregational United Church of Christ presented them as husbands and signed their marriage certificate. It will be recognized back home in New York City.
The couple had been civilly united in Vermont in 2001, but McNally said another ceremony was in order.
“We want the ‘M’ word,’’ McNally said. “We don’t like separate but equal. We want equal.’’
It just worked out that he could get what he wants. Same-sex marriage became legal in the nation’s capital just a month ago as McNally was moving to Washington for a few weeks.
A festival of McNally’s work had been years in the planning with Michael Kaiser, Kennedy Center president, who said he wanted to revive “Traviata.’’
The series — “Terrence McNally’s Nights at the Opera’’ — unites three plays that share his love of opera. It opened March 12 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with the world premiere of McNally’s “Golden Age,’’ set at a 19th-century Italian opera house, followed by 1985’s “Traviata’’ and 1995’s Tony Award-winning “Master Class,’’ starring Daly as opera singer Maria Callas. The series runs through April 18.
“Traviata’’ was a favorite for Kaiser. There hadn’t been a major revival of the work, and he felt it was time. It was also a chance to showcase McNally’s other work.
McNally wrote the books for “Ragtime’’ and “The Full Monty.’’ A revival of his play “Lips Together, Teeth Apart,’’ starring Megan Mullally of TV’s “Will & Grace,’’ was destined for Broadway this season until Mullally abruptly quit.
In 1998, McNally drew protests with “Corpus Christi,’’ for depicting Jesus as gay. It’s been performed since without incident, but recently, a class production was canceled at a Texas university after the lieutenant governor complained.
Still, McNally said he takes pride in knowing he has changed hearts and minds with his work. And he has been welcomed into Washington’s power circles. He has lunched with Representative Barney Frank and met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol, dined with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and attended a White House briefing on lesbian and gay issues.
“I’ve won four Tony Awards, but that’s like a one-night rush of adrenaline,’’ he said. “This is a recognition of really a lifetime.’’
Getting married makes it all the more memorable, McNally said. He’s had partners before. Relationships faded, and one ended in death. His relationship with Kirdahy is his longest.
“I’m so glad I waited,’’ he said. “I don’t expect to be visiting a divorce lawyer.’’