Theater Review: RECIPROCATING PUMPS (The Marsh San Francisco)

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by Chuck Louden on August 16, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Now playing at The Marsh Theater, San Francisco’s independent theater for new performances, writer and director Dirk Alphin’s original production, Reciprocating Pumps, is a riveting, emotionally intense drama. On an intimate set of a living room and bedroom, this family (both chosen and genetic) drama takes place over the course of a single evening. Although no specific date and time are mentioned, one would surmise that it takes place back in the mid to late ’80s. The topic is assisted suicide.

Spencer Jorgensen as Dennis and Dennis Hasty as Zack (Dirk Alphin)

Zack (Dennis Hasty) is in the later stages of AIDS. At this point, his body’s internal organs are ceasing to function and he’s in consistent pain. He has invited his best friend, an unknowing Dennis (Spencer Jorgensen), to be present for the event. His parents Norma (Denise Tyrrell) and Charlie (Timothy Flanagan) are also there very reluctantly out of duty and obligation. Zack’s nurse and caretaker Randall (Patrick Barresi) knows of Zack’s intent and is willing to help him out with his wishes to end his life.

The actual meaning of reciprocating pumps is “the precise amount of fluids mixed together with the right amount of pressure to produce a specific reaction.” In this case, to end one’s life, the chemicals are morphine and sleeping pills.

Timothy Flanagan as Charlie (Dirk Alphin)

The 90-minute drama deals with everyone’s reaction to what is about to take place. The characters are dealing with their mixed emotions about Zack’s impending demise and his thought-out plan to prematurely end his life. In the height of the AIDS epidemic in the mid-80s, thousands of mostly gay men were faced with this dilemma everyday. Dr Jack Kevorkian didn’t come into the Zeitgeist for another decade, so the idea of assisted suicide was not as well-known as a reasonable option for those suffering from chronic illnesses. Thus, this very intense show (not for viewers under 18) can be triggering and button pushing, particularly, I would think, for aging gay baby boomers.

Dennis Hasty as Zack and Patrick Barresi as Randall (Dirk Alphin)

There’s not a weak link in the whole cast. Every character lets you experience their pain and ambiguity about choices to be made and living with the consequences. Alphin’s play hits a very specific time during the epidemic when there were not a lot of options for people (and their loved ones) diagnosed with HIV.

A post-show discussion with the director and cast invited audience members to share their feelings and give feedback. It seemed to give patrons a chance to decompress from what was a very profound, powerful and impassioned theater experience.

Denise Tyrrell as Norma and Spencer Jorgensen as Dennis (Timothy Flanagan)

Reciprocating Pumps
The Marsh San Francisco
1062 Valencia St. in San Francisco
Sat at 7; Sun at 5
ends on August 27, 2023
for tickets ($20-$100), call 415.282.3055 or visit The Marsh

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