In the center of a spare stage, one character meets another. Tom is nursing a twisted knee when Angel appears, banging on a bucket.
"You OK, honey?" Angel sings.
"I'm afraid so," Tom answers in a deep baritone.
In this "Rent," the two characters are no 20-somethings. Tom, played by Rik Kutcher, is 59. The sweet drag queen Angel, played by Lawrence Hutera, is 73.
This is Theatre 55's thing — casting actors in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Each time, the actors bring decades of life experience to roles written for younger people. Each time, that casting shifts the show's meaning.
With "Rent," a pop-rock reimagining of "La Bohème" about artists living with HIV, it's a deepening, the show's director believes.
For one, Kutcher, who plays Tom Collins, has lived with HIV since a decade before the musical's Broadway premiere in 1996. He was 23 when he was diagnosed, about the age of his character, and remembers the stigma and the trauma.
But for many knotty reasons, the show means more to him now that it did when he first saw it.
"The older I get, the more people I know are dying," Kutcher said, "so I love the spirit of Tom and Angel together living for now, despite what's going on."
The show's themes — drug use, housing loss, loneliness — resonate with the 55-plus community, said Richard Hitchler, Theatre 55's founder, before a rehearsal at the Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul.
"When the actors sing, 'Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care?'" He shook his head, tearing up.
He pointed to a big box of tissues on the stage manager's table. "Amanda's gotta hand me a tissue most days," he said. "It's so emotional when you see people of this age speaking to those ideas."
Hitchler asks the actors to play their age, to bring their histories to the roles. There are other differences: Unlike other stagings of this show, known for its "flame of youth," as one critic put it, no one's jumping off the scaffolding.
"People are standing up on, you know, a small bench," Hitchler said.
Some actors are newbies. One actor's daughter encouraged him to audition. Some, like Kutcher, acted for decades, stepped away and now have returned to the stage.
'I want to sing again'
Kutcher was 23 years old and performing at Walt Disney World when he caught a cold he just couldn't shake. The doctor tested him for strep, mono, the flu.
"They were like, so there's this new thing — think we should maybe look into that?"
The test results took two weeks. A nurse called and told him: He was HIV positive.
"I went out, bought a case of beer, and drank the whole thing," he said.
Being HIV positive meant something different then, when a diagnosis could feel like a death sentence. Kutcher moved back home to Louisville. He went on AZT, an early, "horrible" treatment mentioned in the musical. He gave up on the idea, he said, of ever having a relationship again.
It wasn't until after coming to Minnesota, in the early 90s, that Kutcher encountered hope. New drug cocktails, plus help from what was the Minnesota AIDS Project, now Rainbow Health, where Kutcher now works: "I was a client, and now I support clients."
For years, Kutcher performed with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. He was a strong dancer — still is — so he often got cast in the chorus. But in his late 40s, eight shows a week started wearing on his body. He hobbled up the stairs. His addiction to crystal meth, too, was "rolling in and out."
"You come to a place where you think, 'OK, I think I'm done.'"
He missed it, though. After getting his life back together and spending years in recovery, Kutcher's sponsor asked him, "What do you want to do now, for you?" The answer became clear: "I want to sing and dance again."
Kutcher spotted the call for Theatre 55's production, last summer, of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and was intrigued by its mission. "We still have life in us," he said. Plus, his 6-year-old self had played that album "backward and forward."
So he auditioned.
'Still have life in us'
Four days a week, three hours before rehearsal began, Kutcher and Hutera met to run lines and practice lyrics.
Hutera is one of the old pros, decades ago performing at theaters including the Guthrie before stepping away for a career with the Minneapolis Park Board. As "one of the elders" of Theatre 55, he's performed in each of its shows since its start in 2019.
At age 73, "it's harder to remember the lyrics, to not get dizzy when you turn," he said. "It's good for staving off Alzheimer's and couch-potato-ness.
"But it's not as easy anymore."
He appreciates the opportunity to be around younger people, he said, laughing — "Well, younger than me!" — because it keeps him energized. Kutcher has coached him, helping him nail the lyrics' strict cadence.
Holding hands onstage, he feels Kutcher keeping time.
"He's dancing even with his fingers," Hutera said.
Kutcher wakes up each day anticipating the joy of rehearsal. But the first time he saw "Rent," he didn't like it.
Maybe because Kutcher was living it: He was HIV positive, doing drugs, experiencing moments of homelessness. He didn't relate then to the show's optimism, its focus on the moment — or 525,600 of them. He was still in the thick of the trauma.
"Back then, for me, support groups were not a place to go to talk about life and thriving," he said. "It was a place to talk about, how are we going to die?"
But after years of work on his mental health and his relationships, he relates to the show in a new way. His character is "joyful and intelligent and brave and lovable," he said.
Finally, Kutcher understands that he might be those things, too.
"Rent," by Theatre 55
When: Feb. 3–11
Where: Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Suite 177, St. Paul
Tickets: Pay-what-you-will, $10, $25, $40; theatre55.org