Last week brought the stunning news that Terrence McNally had become a victim of COVID-19 at age 81. This was a man who had survived decades of AIDS, as well as his own personal battle with lung cancer. He was a warrior gay role model, a true theatrical lion. Terrence seemed indestructible. His passing brought to mind his luminous sense of joy in Provincetown in the summer of 2018.
I vividly remember standing on Ken Fulk’s back porch, the harbor shimmering before us, handing the very first Provincetown American Playwright Award to Terrence. As the new artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, I saw a fresh page in our history being written.
“How proud I am,” Terrence said, “that Provincetown is reclaiming its incredible role in American drama.” Referencing the original Provincetown Players, he continued, “Those people knew there was much more to America and Americans to write about, and that theater should reflect it. That it all began right here, I find so powerful. It’s almost inexpressible. The arts feed us and make us a better planet. Something I have dedicated my life to.” And, indeed, he had.
Like many, I had grown into adulthood dazzled by the multitude of Terrence’s plays and musicals — Master Class; The Lisbon Traviata; Lips Together, Teeth Apart; Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; The Ritz; Ragtime; and others. I felt as if Terrence was a close friend, when, in truth, we were but casual acquaintances.
That is, until he came to receive the PAPA.
This event, of course, came on the heels of hosting Terrence and his husband, Tom Kirdahy, at the opening of his masterwork, Love! Valour! Compassion!, at the Provincetown Theater. Nervous much? Not at all.
Doing double duty as director and actor in the show was an incredibly intimate experience. The daily delving into his story of gay men’s friendships brought me closer to Terrence than I’d ever expected. So, when we got to the opening night curtain call, and offered Terrence a bow, he jauntily made his way onstage to join the cast. In an act of spontaneous brotherhood, we surrounded Terrence for a group hug that ended with us throwing open our robes — the final scene has the characters skinny-dipping, so we were all nude beneath — and shaking our stuff at him. He laughed and laughed. We all did. Like everything in Terrence’s worldview of the American spirit, there was nothing to hide. As a citizen of the planet, bonding was a call to duty. In that utterly Provincetownian moment, he was very much our papa.