TORCH SONG TRILOGY
Reflections Theatre Ensemble
Chicago Actors Ensemble
Watching Torch Song Trilogy at Reflections Theatre last week, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’s phrase, “the young in one another’s arms.” The people in Torch Song spend an awful lot of time embracing–not just making love, but talking, comforting, sharing joy and soothing sorrow, most of which they have caused each other. And (with one exception) they are all young–very young, younger than they know. Arnold, the play’s hero, is just 24 in 1977, when the play begins–a streetwise gay guy who’s been around and knows the ropes but still yearns for the “international stud” of his dreams. By 1983, when the evening concludes, Arnold is adopting a 15-year-old boy–and is just on the verge of growing up himself.
That 1977-1983 time frame is more than just a playwright’s device; it’s the time period in which Harvey Fierstein, the play’s author and original star, developed Torch Song as a series of three one-acts. By the time the plays made it to Broadway under one title (and with some material cut, though it is restored here), the work had taken shape as the story of the coming of age not just of Arnold but of a small group of people–an extended family drawn together partly by coincidence and partly by circumstances.
The very fragile core of this family is Arnold, a professional female impersonator (but not a drag queen in his offstage life), and Ed, the bisexual Arnold meets at a gay cruise bar called the International Stud (Fierstein’s mockery of the tough-guy bars that dot the west side of Greenwich Village). Ed is a confused, insensitive closet case who also, if he could only get past his hang-ups, is a pretty nice guy and in love with Arnold. But he’s not ready for the commitment Arnold craves, and soon has ditched Arnold for the safer (he thinks) confines of heterosexual courtship, while Arnold experiments with and rejects the anonymous lustfulness of the backroom sex bars.
In act two, Fugue in a Nursery (1978), Ed and his by-now wife Laurel invite Arnold up to their house in the country for a weekend of (it turns out) comparison, relentless self-analysis, and lots of hugging; to Ed’s chagrin, Arnold brings along his new boyfriend, an 18-year-old hustler turned fashion model named Alan. By act three, Widows and Children First, Ed has left Laurel and is very gradually coming to terms with his homosexuality while crashing at Arnold’s; Alan, meanwhile, has died–beaten to death by fag-bashing punks–and the “widowing” Arnold is burying himself in the business of raising a gay runaway-throwaway teenager named David. (Fierstein very deliberately charts the way gay attitudes get more liberated and less guilt ridden as the characters get younger, contrasting the 30ish Ed’s confusion with Arnold’s almost preachy gay pride and, in turn, the generally relaxed self-acceptance of Alan and David.) Into this evolving neo-nuclear family comes Arnold’s mother, a tiny terror who still can’t accept that her son is homosexual–that is, that he loves other men in all the different ways heterosexual men love women. The fireworks between mother and son are inevitable; so, too, is the reconciliation between the once and future lovers Arnold and Ed–but Fierstein, keenly aware of life as a series of phases, makes no promises that his characters achieve anything except self-awareness. That is enough.
Not surprisingly, considering that they are really three independent playlets, each of the nearly four-hour evening’s acts has its own style. Act one, International Stud, is mostly a series of monologues or dialogues spoken over a telephone, emphasizing the theme of difficult, indirect communication. Act two takes place almost entirely on a huge bed, with the two couples shifting positions as they exchange partners back and forth in varying combinations. After such stylization, the naturalistic approach of act three, a Neil Simonesque living-room comedy, may come as a relief to some and a letdown to others; what’s fascinating is that the diverse scenes hang together as well as they do–if, that is, they are performed by actors who capture the roller coaster emotions of the characters as they help and hurt, love and leave each other, groping toward a hard-won self-understanding and communication–a process dramatized not through soap-operatic seriousness but through dialogue that is brilliantly funny, by turns brittle and earthy and sparing no one.
Given Torch Song’s challenging mix of styles and its broad emotional sweep, I approached the Reflections Theatre’s production of the play with a good deal of trepidation. In just about two years of work, Reflections has established a track record dotted with laudable ambition but infrequent accomplishment. Torch Song, staged by Reflections’ artistic director Michael Ryczek, is either a fluke or (I hope) the breakthrough the company needs. It has some rough edges (particularly in the sloppily choreographed second act), but they are negligible when viewed against the creativity, commitment, and confidence with which Ryczek and his cast bring Fierstein’s vision to life. For those who saw the slick touring version of the play at the Blackstone a few years ago, I would say that Reflections’ staging comes far closer to touching the play’s emotional core.
The main reason for this is Dev Kennedy’s performance as Arnold. With his imposing height and expansive smile, Kennedy makes a radiantly inviting Arnold, the overgrown ugly duckling struggling to grow into himself while coping with other people’s imperfections. Though not the least effeminate, Arnold is an earth mother type, and Kennedy has the classic mix of strength and vulnerability down pat. He reaches his peak, appropriately, in the third-act showdown with Mrs. Beckoff, quivering with rage and pride and anguish all jumbled together as he asserts the validity of his love–for dead Alan, for seemingly inaccessible Ed, and for David, his hope for the future–against Mrs. Beckoff’s uncomprehending dismissal of homosexual feeling as shameful and inferior. Unlike any other Arnold I’ve seen, Kennedy makes us feel both the relief and the cost of Arnold’s final explosion at his mother; we know that this is the moment when Arnold shakes off the bonds of dependency and lingering self-recrimination, and that that moment hurts like hell even though it also feels great.
Supporting Kennedy is a nearly perfect ensemble. Mark Arthur Miller is wonderfully natural as Ed, except for a tendency to overdo the dorky moments (Ed’s nervousness at meeting Arnold, his petulant anger that Arnold has brought Alan to the country); Ed is hard to make likable because he spends so much time being such a perfect shithead, but Miller does the trick. Lisa Miller, consistently one of Reflections’ best actors, is ditzy yet cunning, sexy and sweet as Laurel; John Graham is endearing as Alan, Fierstein’s too-good-to-be-true fantasy of a pretty-boy who’s attracted by his partner’s imperfections. Best of all is Frank Stilwagner as David. Making his Chicago stage debut, Stilwagner is touching and thoroughly believable as the adolescent caught between childish self-absorption and prematurely grown-up wisdom. The only weak link is Mary Riff as Mrs. Beckoff: she seems to have been directed to watch a year’s worth of Golden Girls episodes in order to imitate the mannerisms of Estelle Getty (for whom Mrs. Beckoff was written), but lacks any deep foundation on which to base the tart toughness that finally enrages Arnold.
Standing outside the action, in a stroke of bold directorial imagination and gutsy performance, is the character of the Blues Singer. On Broadway, this was a woman who boozily belted out old torch tunes between the scenes; here the role has been expanded by director Ryczek and actor Michael Shepperd, dressed in full drag. Shepperd, serving as Arnold’s alter ego, appears behind a backlit scrim to comment on the story as it unfolds–sometimes with just a knowing look or silent gesture, sometimes singing in a butch baritone, almost like a Brechtian storyteller. (The music, tastefully chosen though clunkily played by musical director and pianist John W. Adams, includes such material as “Losing My Mind” from Follies, “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, and “Family” from Dreamgirls.) In one key scene–the backroom orgy in act one–Ryczek cleverly cuts back and forth between the action and the Blues Singer in order to downplay the potentially embarrassing sex while still preserving the point of the scene.
When Fierstein began developing Torch Song in the mid-1970s, dissatisfaction with casual sex was a big issue; bars like the Mineshaft (of which the International Stud is a parody) flourished, everyone was getting laid, and writers like Fierstein and Larry Kramer (whose brilliant novel Faggots, just reissued, dates from the same era) were urging people to consider the emotionally distancing effects of such behavior. Today, of course, such debate has been overshadowed by more fundamental, life-and-death concerns as a result of the AIDS crisis; in that light, Torch Song now could have come off as dated, irrelevant, even irresponsible. Instead, thanks to the Reflections company’s probing of the human contradictions in Fierstein’s characters and the undercurrents of his rich, dense script, Torch Song reminds us that there are far deeper components to homosexuality than just sex–components that are universally human while taking on very specific qualities in the context of being gay in a society that stigmatizes gay people. The issues Torch Song Trilogy connects with are issues of courage in the face of oppression (including self-oppression), of emotional honesty and personal openness, of learning to understand oneself through trial and error when you have to create your own role models, of one generation trying to make circumstances better for the next, of the vital importance of family and the value of faith when logic seems to fail.
Alan Thurston’s Shoeless Joe, having its world premiere by the Chicago Actors Ensemble as the last offering in CAE’s free summer theater series, is, I am told, still in the rewrite-and-development stage. I’m glad, because while Thurston has the germ of a good idea, he hasn’t yet begun to bring it to life. Shoeless Joe moves but at this point it doesn’t breathe.
Thurston’s notion is to recount in vaudeville fashion the 1919 World Series scandal, in which players for the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking bribes to throw the series. Among those so charged was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, known as the game’s greatest “natural” hitter (as opposed to a “scientific” hitter like Ty Cobb). In Thurston’s telling, the players’ decision to take money for losing was the result of the stingy treatment they received at the hands of their boss, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. (It all seems so quaint in these times of cynical millionaire free-agent players.) By Thurston’s account, Jackson was a victim, an innocent dupe caught up in the rush of events, a naive southern hick lost among the rough players up north.
But Thurston’s real interest isn’t baseball; it’s to paint a picture of the exploitation of working men by greedy bosses and of the hypocrisy and phony “patriotism” that link sports, show biz, politics, and big business. To achieve this aim, Thurston has very tentatively structured Shoeless Joe like a minstrel show, with blackface singers rushing on to perform period (and ersatz period) songs pointing up the play’s political message.
At this point, under Douglas Hartzell’s direction, the play is ably and energetically performed and its story understandably told. What’s missing are, first, a sense of coherence (the action slips unclearly between more or less naturalistic vignettes and the would-be expressionism of the minstrel show numbers–more genuine World War I-era music would help) and, second, a sense that real people are involved here. The fate of Joe, his wife, and his buddies is unimportant if we don’t believe in them as people, no matter how “objective” Thurston wants us to be about history. At this point, they’re just props to make a point, and a belabored one at that. This is true despite the thoroughly ingratiating performance of D.R. Jones as Joe: Jones is a gigantic fellow with effective subtlety of movement and facial expression, and he should be kept in mind for the day when the script actually gives the lead role’s actor some substantial characterization to work with.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Bosco.