Bailiwick Repertory

Playwright Glenn Rawls is politically incorrect and doesn’t give a damn. The characters in his comedy Earl, Ollie, Austin & Ralph don’t like the word “gay”; they’re more comfortable with “homosexual,” “that way,” or maybe “queer” for shock effect when they’re describing themselves. They’re not particularly inclined to proclaim their love for each other by holding hands in public (and marching in a parade never even crosses their minds), but they love each other just the same. Some of them do, anyway. Others of them are still figuring out what love is besides a cute butt or a nice chest, as they cling to errant partners long after the thrill is gone. And still others are unregenerately unattached dirty old men who take great pleasure in publicly proving–firsthand, so to speak–that they can pee over their heads.

Earl, Ollie, Austin & Ralph is Rawls’s tender but tart comedy about a brief encounter between men of two different generations and many different expectations. Austin–he’s the clinging one–is a southern boy in his mid-20s (as Rawls, a South Carolinian, was when he wrote this play about five years ago) who drags his New Yorker boyfriend Ralph “down home.” Not to meet the folks, exactly, but to meet the environment that nurtured Austin. Coincidentally (too much so for credibility’s sake, but what the hell), the two young men check in at a run-down South Carolina resort populated by a bunch of old farts who just happen to be, well, that way. There their relationship unravels–roving-eyed Ralph is averse to the heat, the life-style, and ol’ man commitment in general; but Austin’s eyes are opened a bit as he gets a glimpse of the varieties of homosexual life through the examples and anecdotes of the hotel’s owners and other guests.

Ollie and Earl, for example, reminisce about World War II–and the hypocrisy of a nation that symbolized freedom but enforced repression. Ollie was a film censor for the government’s wartime propaganda office, editing newsreel footage to make sure the public never saw President Roosevelt in a wheelchair–or knew that Hitler was exterminating homosexuals as well as Jews. Earl was a soldier who naively took the Army up on its promise of kind treatment of men who acknowledged “homosexual tendencies”; after voluntarily applying for an offer of discharge with no loss of benefits, he found himself stockaded and stripped of his medals.

Rawls drops such dollops of documented gay history into Earl and Ollie’s more personal recollections, accumulated over 50 years of living together. But these two old men don’t offer their stories as rallying cries for a rights movement; as settled as these seniors appear, they still carry the burden of shame, the sense of inferiority, the passive resignation to life’s unfairness that their generation was instilled with. The important thing to them is that they got through it all, and that they stuck together–unlike Rodgers, their longtime friend and tenant, who proudly recalls that he turned heads as a young man and grumbles that the younger generation’s appropriation of the word “gay” as a synonym for homosexual “really puts a damper on the language.” Rodgers is all alone now–he always found it easier to trick with someone than to talk with him, and the heads he turned kept on turning. “I know you in 50 years,” he warns Ralph, who’s hell-bent on ending his two-year relationship with Austin even though he doesn’t know it yet. “Maybe I’ll change something,” counters Ralph.

And maybe he will. Coursing through the twin currents of Rawls’s play–the concern with retrieving the neglected gay history embodied in old men and the concern with the state of gay personal relationships in the more candid and enlightened but not necessarily wiser present–is the awareness that one person’s story can function as only a terribly imperfect guideline for another person. Austin, sweet and sincere and longing for a secure relationship, tries to erect a parallel between the repressiveness of the World War II years and the threats posed to modern gay men by AIDS, believing that such sexually restrictive conditions are conducive to monogamy. (“Stand by your man,” croons a male voice on the taped sound track; but later Kathy Baillie’s rendition of “A Fool Such As I” proves more appropriate.) Austin’s sentimental journey leads him down a road that he’s going to have to travel alone–at least until he develops a taste for more appropriate lovers than the high-strung, abrasive Ralph. Looking to Ollie and Earl as role models at the play’s odd and unresolved conclusion, Austin can only wonder how much of their relationship is true love and how much is just compromise.

Rawls’s anecdotal comedy is given a beautifully played, sensitively directed midwest-premiere production as part of Bailiwick Repertory’s gay- and lesbian-oriented Pride Performance Series. Director Patrick Trettenero, most familiar to this critic for his campily stylized Cloud 42 shows such as Living Up to My Blue China and The Bad Seed, is even more skillful dealing with a naturalistic, low-key life study such as this; performances that could have been exaggerated into sitcom broadness bloom instead as rounded, fully lived characterizations. Danne Taylor is cannily concentrated as Earl, taking note of everything around him but keeping his own counsel until the right moment; Don Renaud is Ollie, bemused and just slightly bewildered by a world that he never exactly fit into. Derek T. Bell is a puppyish Austin, trying to take stock of his own emotional growth but not quite able to accept where that growth is taking him; Jeffrey Foster is perfect as Ralph, caught up in the restless conflicts between his libido, his pride, and his need for approval; and Page Hearn is a convincingly crusty Rodgers. The characterizations are credibly enhanced by Nora-Lee Luttrell’s wryly comic costumes, and Becky Flory’s setting evokes a dumpy-but-neat southern inn to near perfection, right down to the old-fashioned Coke machine next to the check-in desk.