THE SUM OF US
The relationship between a father and his son, even under the best circumstances, is extremely high-voltage. A son trying to forge his own identity is driven by some perverse instinct to emulate and please his father–which makes him subservient, a position bound to arouse anger and resentment. A father tends to see his son as an extension of himself, an appendage that should obey automatically. When the son doesn’t conform to his wishes, the father often feels ashamed, as though he himself has failed.
The Sum of Us brilliantly exposes the difficulty of the father-son relationship, but in a very subtle way. Playwright David Stevens pushes this aspect of the play into the background, and puts in the foreground a simple bittersweet story about two men looking for love–men who just happen to be father and son. He further downplays the tension between the two men by giving them what seems to be an ideal father-son relationship.
Harry, a widower, is jovial and seemingly free of the paternal compulsion to criticize and control his son Jeff. “He’s as much a friend as a son,” Harry says during one of his confidential chats with the audience. He’s so uncritical that he even accepts the fact that his son is a homosexual. “He’s what you might call cheerful,” Harry says. “I can’t bear that other word. He’s been like that since . . . well . . . since he was born, I suppose. I didn’t want him to turn out that way, of course, but I think I always knew somehow. . . . So I think we both accepted the fact as a natural part of life, and got on with living.”
But in the background of this cozy domestic scene tension crackles. Harry talks openly about his son’s sexual preference–too much. “Stop off for a quickie somewhere?” he asks when Jeff comes home after soccer practice. Jeff also says that he once invited a man to spend the night, and Harry barged in the next morning to bring them tea, interrupting them in the middle of a “wake-up session.”
Harry means well, but his eagerness to accept Jeff’s homosexuality suggests that he’s a bit ashamed of it. His discomfort also interferes with his own pursuit of romance. When he meets Joyce through a dating service, he postpones telling her about Jeff’s sexual preference. But Joyce recognizes Harry’s hesitation as an expression of shame. “I’ve never been ashamed of Jeff, not ever,” Harry tells the audience. “Or have I?”
Jeff apparently senses his father’s shame, for he seems tense and inhibited in his search for a lover. Only at the end of the play, after Harry has been silenced forever, does Jeff gain the confidence to pursue a lover, reflecting poet Robert Bly’s assertion that a man doesn’t really become a man until his father dies.
Both the foreground and the background of the play come through strongly in the Pegasus Players’ production. The four skillful actors under the direction of Gary Griffin create characters that arouse enormous sympathy. Rex McGraw endows Harry with the kind of breezy good humor that makes a person, no matter how annoying, hard to dislike. The affection McGraw displays for Jeff is almost palpable, even though he almost never touches the other actor; when he’s with Joyce, he is genuinely gallant. Brad Farwell deftly uses a gangly posture and wide-eyed attention to convey Jeff’s youthful anxiety and nervous energy. Kyle Hall is all shy smiles and gentleness as Greg, the young man Jeff is courting. And Deborah Davis does an amazing job of capturing both the strength and the vulnerability of Joyce, a woman who never thought she would be the object of a man’s affections again. The actors even do a capable job of speaking in an Australian accent. (The play is set in Footscray, an industrial suburb of Melbourne.)
Griffin has shaped his actors’ performances beautifully. The unspoken attitudes of the characters never jump out of the background, but they provide a jolting contrast to the sweet, simple action of the foreground.