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BUA gets serious with heartfelt tribute

This is a very unusual week for Javier Bustillos and his Buffalo United Artists theater company.

Usually, the troupe mounts established plays with gay themes -- or members write their own -- Fire Island tales, gender-bending stories, wild and crazy spoofs or satires, silly situational stuff that almost always results in packed houses and raucous laughter.

Not this time. Matthew Crehan Higgins, the troupe's homegrown playwright, grew up with this theater, first as an actor then as a playwright -- his "Confessions" had its debut in Buffalo, then went on to garner national awards -- and he has since appeared in a half dozen productions with his fellow zanies.

Sometimes, as we all know, the time arrives to get serious.

Higgins has written a paean to his late grandfather, a one-man, heartfelt tribute penned with the blessing of his large extended family. His Aunt Trish once told him, after the death of their patriarch: "At some point you'll write about this." Matthew took that as "permission."

And so, "The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins Sr." has arrived, an hourlong, sweet and rapid remembrance of the life and death of Dan Higgins Sr., snippets of the man his grandson calls "authentic," little recollections of moments with Grandpa, the fun times, the sad, lessons learned at his knee, family gatherings and the everyday examples of living a life of helping others, a natural gift for public service.

Much of the hour is given to Dan's last weeks and months, and to his descent into dementia, what former President Ronald Reagan once called "the long goodbye." We learn of the family's first concerns, the endless search for "options," the new medical vocabulary that comes with the illness, the quick journeys to "higher levels of care," the days of hope, the nights of disappointment. Matthew relates all of this, recalling conversations with family members and health aides, bounding from side to side of the tiny stage to simulate changes of venue, settling down often in reverie -- large photos behind him, family shots, Grandpa, his cousins, Matthew himself in precocious pose -- as a day in the park or a Sunday dinner comes to mind. This "Elegy," while it understandably mourns, is love on display, celebratory, a time to give thanks.

"Elegy" is about Matthew, too, of course, his new appreciation of family and his place in it, but he is careful here: This is the story of Dan Higgins Sr. or at least the final chapters. Matthew has plenty to tell, and we get hints of his personal life. He's a talented young man, already an acclaimed writer and proud of his uncle, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

But, all of that for another time. Right now it's about one family's ordeal and their inspiration to others, the need for awareness about dementia, support group availability and friends.

"The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins Sr." is also a song of joy and praise surfacing in the most difficult of times.

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>Theater Review

"The Pipes Are Calling: An Elegy to Dan Higgins Sr."

Review: Three stars (out of four)

One-man show by Matthew Crehan Higgins through Saturday for Buffalo United Artists, 119 W. Chippewa St. For information, 886-9239 or visit www.buffalobua.org.

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