Revisiting Groundbreaking Theatre: Jerker
It’s a story far too familiar to a Provincetown audience: casual intimacy and death by plague. But Robert Chesley’s Jerker manages to explain and defy both in ways that aren’t immediately obvious—and ultimately quite poignant.
The story is simple: JR (Provincetown Theater veteran Joe MacDougall) is calling Bert (Stephen Walker) in the night for aural sex. And one might be forgiven for believing the first half of the play is purely pornographic—the two actors leave little to the imagination, even though most of the time they’re under the covers of the two beds that constitute the entire mise en scène. But even as they continue their mental exploration of each other’s body, they are going deeper and deeper into each other’s psyche as well, sometimes willingly, sometimes apparently to their own surprise.
The ending is as predictable as it gets; and perhaps that’s the point of this production. Written in 1985 for a very different audience, during a time when gay men and their sexual habits were still being blamed for the AIDS epidemic, in 2022 it resonates with a sadness that possibly transcends the anger of the experience.
It’s interesting that Chesley felt he had to give the play a “significant” title (Jerker, or The Helping Hand: A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and a Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty), and equally interesting that director David Drake chose not to lean on it. It’s not a comfortable title, but neither is it a comfortable play; there are parts of the exchanges that are awkward for certain audience members (obviously, women in particular), but truly superb acting on both the part of Walker and especially MacDougall imbue their scenes with such strong personal dynamics it’s impossible for anyone to not feel empathy for their characters.
JR, broken in so many ways—he’s a disabled Vietnam veteran with PTSD—becomes strong through the myriad gifts he gives to Bert, while Bert, gleeful at the ambiance of the Castro yet slightly defensive about its mores, discovers friendship and connection in JR. One wonders how their story might have gone in other directions had the epidemic not put paid to it… as it did to so many similar stories.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the New England première of a play approaching its forty-year mark that takes its place with other works about the AIDS epidemic previously staged at the Provincetown Theater as Drake continues his vision for presenting locally and historically meaningful works here in the birthplace of America’s theatre.
images: Bob Tucker, Focalpoint