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A Blessing in Disrepair

In the theater world as in society, a happy few are much more fortunate than the rest. Consider the prosperous and respected Florida Stage. Now entering its 15th season, the Stage is blessed with a lovely facility (a 250-seat thrust theater with excellent sightlines), critical acclaim (22 Carbonell nominations for the 2000-2001 season), a solid financial base (8200 Palm Beach subscribers), and an artistically ambitious mission (its entire production slate is focused on new plays). This year, the Stage kicks off its season with Thief River, a new play by Lee Blessing, a playwright of national renown who has had a long association with Florida Stage producer/director Louis Tyrrell's company. By any measure, the production is a significant theatrical event in South Florida.

It is not, however, a reason to celebrate. Thief River is a misfire. It bears all the trappings of what celebrated British director Peter Brook called "deadly theatre." It's beautifully produced, with superb technical support. But at its weak heart generalized acting and static direction, lots of crocodile tears, and very little passion or honesty.

Passion and honesty are precisely what Thief River requires. Blessing's saga is a gay melodrama, tracing the lifelong relationship between a troubled gay boy, Gil, and his best friend, Ray, who is confused about his sexuality. Their story begins in 1948, when both are teens in a repressive Minnesota farm community. When Gil shoots another boy in a fit of jealousy, he flees to Ray for help. They hide in Ray's family's farmhouse only to be attacked by a homophobic drifter. The crisis forces Gil to flee town. By 1973, Gil has become an established travel writer living in New York with his flamboyant boy-toy lover. Ray has long since married and fathered a son, keeping his early gay dalliance a secret. But he continues to write Gil weekly. When Ray suddenly stops his correspondence on the eve of his son's marriage, Gil returns to their hometown to investigate, with his lover in tow. Gil wants Ray to come to terms with their love for each other and for the two of them to live together, but Ray balks. He won't leave his wife, his son, or their community. The visit ends badly when the lover gives one of Ray's letters to Ray's son, thus outing the father. In 2001, Gil again returns to the town, now alone long after his lover has died of AIDS. Ray has remained in the Minnesota town, a widowed outcast long estranged from his son. Once again, the two childhood friends meet for what seemingly will be a final confrontation.

Blessing has the makings of a great, gay saga: one complicated relationship set against the awakening of contemporary gay culture. He plays with narrative structure, telling his tale out of chronological sequence in bits and pieces, punctuated by the characters' narrations to the audience. This device, and several flashes of poetic language, recall Blessing's obvious model, Tennessee Williams, the godfather of contemporary gay theater, who, writing in a far less tolerant era, expressed many of his own thoughts and desires through his fantastic array of female characters. Blessing has more choices, but his personal, emotional dramas, his poetic realism, and his interest in middle-American sensibilities echo Williams. Like Williams' work, Blessing's play is filled with dark and brooding touches. Teen Ray suffers from the trauma of his parents' deaths, a murder-suicide. Suddenly orphaned, Ray refuses to give up his family's farmhouse, keeping it for years as it molders, unoccupied. Each time Ray meets Gil, their encounters take place in the empty house, like ghosts dancing an endless minuet.

Among the play's flaws: There's a good deal of revisionist history. Young Ray terms gay Gil as "special," a PC attitude that's way wrong for 1948. The 1973 Gil and his lover are defiantly out, as was the case for Gay Priders of that era, but when he explains his sexuality to a farmer in coveralls, the latter gets some anachronistic yuks by claiming to be tolerant. Then there's the matter of that murder subplot, a hyperventilated sideshow that obscures rather than enlightens the central issue. A lot of the play focuses on this event and its aftermath, but the real problem here is Gil's longing and Ray's sexuality, not their potential criminal records. Blessing may be comparing the two issues to make a point about repression, but if so, he's sacrificing emotional focus to do it. It's one repression too many. It almost feels like one play too many. The cornfields, the farmhouse, a murder, a secret grave -- it's as if Blessing's gay historical romance has been invaded by Sam Shepard's Buried Child.

Blessing's complex saga is a tough project to pull off on-stage, requiring three sets of actors to portray Gil and Ray in three eras. The company of six must also portray all the others in the story. This not only requires exceptional emotional facility but it demands that six actors agree on two characters. That takes a lot of work, a lot of agreement, and -- significantly -- much rehearsal time. But Tyrrell had his cast for only three and a half weeks. That's not nearly enough to get to the heart of this play, and as a result, this cast looks significantly underrehearsed. The play requires a burning connection between Gil and Ray, but none of the three sets of performers manages to serve up much more than tepid friendship. In his floppy overalls and bare feet, young Gil is a sort of gay Huck Finn with Ray as his Tom Sawyer, more civilized and proper. As young Gil, Paul Whitthorne is a tearful nellie with very little variety or color. The same could be said for David McNamara, who plays young Ray as tongue-tied and befuddled rather than intensely conflicted. They share a kiss but little other physical contact and very little heat. And since the entire narrative rests on the premise that these two were made for each other, this emotional connection should be apparent on-stage. It isn't.

Michael MacCauley fares better as middle-age Gil. At least he has a clear objective -- to get Ray to go away with him. He must also contend with his jealous young lover. But MacCauley doesn't get much further than sad-faced longing with Joseph Adams, who plays middle-age Ray. Like McNamara, Adams doesn't appear to be struggling with anything like passion. David Bailey, as the older Ray, suffers from the same thing. There's not much going on between Bailey and John Newton, who plays the older Gil. But Newton manages to explicate Gil's decades-old resentment, which is based on the fact that his life has been casually hurt by Ray's inability to make up his mind about their relationship. When Newton as old Gil lets old Ray have an earful, it rings true. But there is no more sign of heartache or lingering love for each other in these two grumpy old gay men than can be found in their younger counterparts.

It is significant that all six actors fare better when they are playing the supporting roles. This suggests the lack of strong directorial vision in creating these two characters; how could six actors pull off such a task if not for a strong guiding force? Sadly, Tyrrell's direction of his actors manages to be both fussily choreographic and unimaginative. The director's hand can be seen in the dialogue, which is quick and carefully scored. But no characters seem to listen, and there's little life on the stage. Tyrrell's physical staging is repetitive and dull. Characters seem to gravitate to downstage center, staring out at the audience while turning their backs to whomever they are addressing. Everyone seems compelled to exit upstage right, only to stop and turn back in the doorway. The bare, wooden stage set by Paul Owen doesn't help. An upstage scrim reveals a cornfield panorama at times during the show, but this area pushes most of the action to a flat forestage. Neither the actors nor Tyrrell seems to know what to do in this Shakespearean-style space.

With so inert a production, the question of whether Thief River is a significant play remains unanswered. Certainly, it offers wit, poetry, and at times considerable heart, and it deserves better than its current production. Florida Stage may yet offer a better production of Blessing's work. Its second show of the season, Blessing's Black Sheep, a world premiere, follows in December.

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Ronald Mangravite

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