BEFORE MY EYES, Victory Gardens Theater. Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson writes what he’s lived, and so honestly that Before My Eyes seems both common knowledge and profound revelation. The play follows a downstate family–John, a gay man, and his parents–from 1962 to 1988. John’s coming out is poignantly particular, with heft and humor, overcoming the familiar with the fresh. Yes, John is somewhat stereotypical–a picked-on bookworm-sissy who likes to do Mom’s hair, pick her wardrobe, fantasize over muscle magazines, and dance to Streisand. But he’s also a peacemaker in his parents’ quarrels, and when he goes to college, he lives out their abandoned ambitions. His father wants what’s best for John but is wise enough not to define it, while the mother is John’s secret sharer, surrogate sister, and finally his literary disciple.
Director Sandy Shinner’s Midas touch gilds all the characters in this pitch-perfect staging. Timothy Hendrickson supplely depicts the wary son who hopes one love won’t destroy another. Annabel Armour as the mother broadcasts loyalty on all frequencies, Jeff Parker plays John’s lovers with passionate precision, and the usually rambunctious Marc Silvia as Streisand, John’s patron diva, places sincerity above style. But the richest harvest comes from Rob Riley as the father, blending dead-on timing with heartfelt directness. When a stroke makes the father the child and John his protector, Riley confirms a deathless truth: the gift of love must be returned to sender.