WHEN Through 3/25: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis

PRICE $15-$20, two for one Thu

INFO 773-973-2150

Ann Coulter made headlines last week with a snide comment at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.–at once an attempt to smear Democratic presidential contender John Edwards and a jab at so-called political correctness. “It turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot,” she said. “So I–so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.” Her comment–an allusion to Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington getting therapy after tossing the slur at a fellow actor–provoked howls of outrage. But it’s hard to imagine the cynical denizens of D.C. actually being offended. Indeed, the Edwards campaign site quickly began playing Coulter’s speech as a fund-raising gimmick, thereby giving the epithet even wider circulation.

What these players of power politics don’t seem to understand is that when one celebrity calls another a faggot, the hateful message filters down to real people in real-life America. Things get a little more miserable and confusing for kids wrestling with their sexuality. For every out-and-proud Ellen DeGeneres or Neil Patrick Harris there’s a Tim Hardaway proclaiming that homosexuality “shouldn’t be in the world” or a self-hating Ted Haggard declaring himself “completely heterosexual” after three weeks of counseling. The invisibility that once cloaked “the love that dare not speak its name” has been replaced by an openness unthinkable half a century ago–but increased public awareness has by no means led to universal respect.

Jumping back and forth in time, Lee Blessing’s Thief River chronicles a 60-year relationship whose evolution mirrors modern gay history. Written with a rustic lyricism that recalls the poetry of Robert Frost, this engrossing character study-cum-murder mystery focuses on Gil and Ray, two guys from a Minnesota farming community whose friendship shifts into romance “one confession at a time,” as Ray puts it. When a traumatic incident separates the lovers, each is forced to weigh his feelings for the other against social expectations and his own values–family ties for Ray, emotional honesty for Gil. Blessing’s 2001 drama reveals lives shaped by what might have been as well as what was–what time, the thief, steals from us as time, the river, carries us on. The subject of a long-term, rural same-sex relationship calls to mind Brokeback Mountain, of course; I also thought of Gore Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar, which shocked readers in the 1940s with its depiction of a seemingly typical small-town all-American boy obsessed by a sexual encounter he had with a high school buddy.

In Thief River, Gil and Ray are seen as teenagers in 1948, as middle-aged guys in 1973, and as old men today. Theirs is an enduring love but not a happy one: they spend most of the years geographically separated and emotionally estranged. When revelation of their affair leads to a homicide, Gil leaves town while Ray stays to take care of the family farm, marry, and raise a family. The two meet again 25 years later when Gil–a leisure-suited urbanite with a cute, much younger boyfriend–returns for the wedding of Ray’s son. It’s the first flowering of gay pride, and even skeptical straight folks are willing to be tolerant. But as one character notes, “You don’t have to like what you tolerate. That’s what toleration’s for.” Which is why Ray chooses to stay in the closet.

An odd burial ceremony is the occasion of the couple’s final encounter. By now each man has made an imperfect peace with himself. Ray’s belated coming-out has led his son to reject him, but his grandson casually accepts having a gay granddad. Gil, torn between his affection for Ray and resentment that his onetime lover turned him away, has grown weary of losing friends and lovers to AIDS and old age.

Thief River requires three pairs of actors for the two leads at different ages, and the play’s unusual narrative structure–which alternates dialogue and monologues in scenes that criss-cross over the years–demands performances of unrelenting honesty to ensure the story’s credibility. Director Jarrett Dapier’s superb cast rises to the challenge in Side Project’s Chicago premiere. Gangly Nick Lewis and stocky Mike Harvey are the teenage Gil and Ray; Paul Quaintance and Kipp Moorman portray their 1970s counterparts; and Jim Schmid and John Ruhaak are wonderful as the old men. It’s rare to find one good elderly actor in an off-Loop non-Equity show, let alone two; Schmid and Ruhaak’s performances resonate with hard-earned wisdom. All six cast members double in supporting roles, deftly altering their voices and demeanor and making lightning-fast costume changes. Grant Sabin’s ingenious set enhances the acting’s intimacy and authenticity by transforming the theater–stage and seating area alike–into a cramped shed, with the audience perched on mismatched, beat-up wood chairs of the sort you might find in an old outbuilding.

Even in its most intense moments of loving intimacy and brutal violence, Thief River is devoid of sentimentality, melodrama, and political grandstanding as it asks us to consider how its characters’ lives–and by extension our own–are shaped by the conflicting values of changing times.