The press release’s description of Joel Drake Johnson’s new show, Before My Eyes, sounds like a cliche: the story of a gay man’s life from 1962 to 1988, it focuses on his “loving but sometimes strained relationship with his parents” and “his lifelong obsession with Barbra Streisand.” But cliches often become cliches because they’re true. In his first collaboration with Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago playwright Johnson truthfully and warmly explores experiences common to a great many gay men who grew up in the 1960s–including himself.
Set mostly in a small town in downstate Illinois, Before My Eyes traces the lives of John Garrison, a college English teacher, and his parents. In a structure that recalls Driving Miss Daisy, the play follows the characters through a series of small incidents and encounters: an eccentric relative teasing John as a “little sissy boy”; John prancing around his bedroom lip-synching to scratchy Streisand singles; John’s parents seeking guidance from the local minister after finding beefcake magazines stashed under his mattress; their horrified visit to the dinky college dorm room John shares with a long-haired hippie in the early 70s; John squirming while his mother confesses her dissatisfaction with her housebound life; and John’s return home to care for his father after the old man suffers a stroke. Also appearing periodically is John’s beloved Barbra–played in drag by actor Marc Silvia–to guide the Garrisons through what Johnson calls their “common free fall through life.”
“It’s not all my story, but much of it comes from me,” says the diminutive, soft-spoken Johnson. He grew up in tiny Nachusa, Illinois, as “a pretty lonely, isolated kid, especially in junior high and high school. All my friends were changing, getting into the boy-girl thing, and I hated all that.” It was around then that he discovered Streisand. “It’s funny when I look back, how important she was. I don’t like her as much now, but I was wild about her then. I was in eighth grade when ‘People’ came out as a single. I would take it into my room and dance and sing along with it, like John does in the play. I listen to it now and think, ‘You were in the eighth grade! Nobody else was listening to this! What was it that pulled you into this?'”
The answer is that for a lot of outcast kids of Johnson’s generation, Streisand was a symbol of strength and a source of comfort: her ugly-duckling looks and campily glamorous image, her kooky, self-deprecating humor and unorthodox, extravagantly emotional singing added up to what John, in the play, calls “a kind of power base” for young misfits. The fact that parents often found Streisand annoying only made her fans love her more. “My dad hated her. He called her ‘that big-nosed woman,'” Johnson recalls with a laugh.
Now 48, Johnson came to Chicago in the early 80s to pursue a writing career after a stint teaching drama at a college in Fayette, Missouri. “I was desperate to get out of that small town, and I had friends in theater here. I got a job as a Holiday Inn desk clerk. It was great for my writing. Up till then I’d always been in an academic setting; the hotel job introduced me to a whole different set of people.” He soon teamed up with the Econo-Art Theatre, a funky fringe troupe that performed in the basement of a sprawling, pregentrification River North warehouse. Over the years he’s seen his work produced at numerous off-Loop and regional theaters. His plays have frequently addressed gay themes (As the Beaver, presented by Zebra Crossing Theatre a few seasons back, brought AIDS into the lives of sitcom kids Beaver Cleaver and Little Ricky Ricardo), and he’s drawn on his insight as a theater instructor at Stevenson High School in north suburban Lincolnshire to depict the tensions that arise when “different” children are pressured to fit the social expectations of parents, schools, and churches. But he says Before My Eyes comes the closest to his own life.
“I started writing the play after my father had a stroke and we had to put him in a nursing home. He died, in fact, as I was writing the end. I was feeling very sentimental, and I started thinking how great my parents were–especially compared to the horror stories I’d hear from other gay men. They were always supportive all through my life, even though I think I was a mystery to them during a lot of it.”
In an era of highly politicized gay theater packed with righteous rhetoric about AIDS, homophobia, and domestic dysfunction, did Johnson feel a certain risk in writing a gentle, upbeat comedy about a gay guy who actually gets along with his family? “It’s certainly not very political–that’s not what I wanted to write,” he says. “I wanted to write about my relationship with my parents. I didn’t think about the risk.”
Before My Eyes opens Thursday, January 29, at 7:30 PM at Victory Gardens Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln, where it runs through February 22; for more information, consult the theater listings in Section Two or call 773-871-3000. –Albert Williams
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joel Drake Johnson photo by J.B. Spector.