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The York Realist
by Rich See
The Studio Theatre returns to the realism of the 1960's British stage with its current production of The York Realist, Peter Gill's touching drama about two men from different worlds who fall deeply in love despite their dissimilar social and educational backgrounds. While first and foremost a bittersweet love story, playwright Gill's script touches upon technology's encroachment into English rural life, the liberalizing social and political changes of the times, and the expanding perspective of the English theatre which was embracing a realistic portrayal of British society and the working classes. Mr. Gill pulls from his own youth in Britain's working provinces, his time as Assistant Director of the "York Mystery Plays" in 1963, and his years as a young man in London's theatre scene. From these experiences he draws an intimate character study of a time and place in the throes of change. And it's in this aura of social upheaval, Gill places his two lovers. With one raised in the fields of Yorkshire and the other a denizen of London, the two men try to bridge their diverse social and educational backgrounds and overcome the geographic distance that separates them.
It's an interesting play that seems to inspire audiences to either love or hate it. While one patron feels the first half is too slow, another describes the first act as quick and snappy. You love the very British writing style of the script or you cringe with every subtly implied emotion attached to a shouted "Aye!" The script itself has two issues -- we have no idea how much time has passed from George's first meeting with John until the last scene -- it could be months or years. Gill never fills us in on this regard. Also, we have no idea how old the men are throughout the play. We assume their early twenties, but by its end we have no idea how much time has passed, something that is necessary in understanding George's rationalization for not pursuing an acting career for which everyone insists he is naturally gifted.
George, played by Markus Potter, is a handsome young farmer working within the accepted agricultural system of the times, a system his family has been involved with for many years. Laboring for a wealthy man who owns the farm, he is paid in lodging, food, and wages. Thus he lives with and cares for his aging mother, while his sister and her family reside within walking distance of his home. His world is a small one where everyone knows everyone else. Modern amenities like indoor plumbing are just making an entrance into this rural land and he likes the slow pace and the rustic richness. Meanwhile, Tom Story's John is a young man setting out in the exciting world of London's theatre scene. A larger, busier world is just opening up and he is excitedly creating his part in an industry that is in the throws of rapid change. But while each man loves the other, the sacrifices required to bridge their disparate natures are great.
George, the title character, is a man who seemingly looks at life with unwavering, almost cruelly cold, realism. At first glance he has no sentimentality, however as you watch throughout the play, he is filled with emotion where John is concerned. While he wants nothing to remember his recently deceased mother, he refuses to remove the old wood burning stove simply because John once expressed admiration for it. He is a man who feels greatly and expresses very little. And although he is painfully aware that each would be unhappy in the other's world, when he states this fact in simple terms it comes across as cold determination to end the relationship. However, this belies the bitter anger and unspoken pain of a man defeated by the reality of a situation upon which he has no control. Markus Potter handles the role with incredible finesse. It's easy to imagine him living in a small cottage and farming the land as he pulls the emotion out of George through physical expression and phrasings and intonations of the character's dialogue.
Director Serge Seiden has pulled together a wonderful team of designers and actors to bring this story to life. He's coaxed a nuanced performance from Mr. Potter, whose complex character feels the pain of his decisions deeply yet is the least emotionally expressive. Seiden seems to understand that within the rural country characters, the emotions must be expressed subtly in looks and glances, turns of phrasing, and in the simplest of statements. Thus George's "ayes" become more than simple acceptances, while his mother's concern is expressed not in the dialogue but in the way she says good night. The only two issues are that the cast's accents fade in and out and that Lawrence C. Daly as George's brother-in-law Arthur is too old to be cast in the role. This second observation becomes apparent only when George explains how he came to realize he was gay.
Tom Story does a wonderful job as the boyishly nervous John who initially can't stop exclaiming about how old everything is, but who, upon his return, is very secure while at the same time highly remorseful of his earlier decision. The contrast between he and Potter's George is apparent from the get go and the two meld together beautifully.
Faith Potts stands out in her portrayal as the mother. When George joins John's acting company and the lengthy rehearsals have John spending days and nights at the small cottage, it becomes obvious that their relationship is more than simple friendship. And although she acts as if the two are just good friends, it is obvious she is aware of their relationship and while not entirely at ease with it, just as obvious she loves her son far too much to intrude upon his happiness. It's another role that requires a fine line between too much emotional expression and too little detachment. Potts does a wonderful job.
Nanette Savard shines as George's sister. The most emotionally expressive character in the play, aside from John, her Barbara is a woman raised in an old world, who is now living in a newer time. She's worrying about the future of her son who is about to graduate high school, she's caring for her aging mother, and concerned about her brother's happiness. By the end of the play, although it is never stated, she begins to understand George's natural temperament, as well as his sexual orientation and begins encouraging him to follow John. It's a role that could quickly become a shrill nag, however Ms. Savard keeps it from devolving into such a simple characterization.
Colleen Delany has the hardest job of being a sympathetic character. Her Doreen is a woman who is obsessively in love with George and willing to hang on to any miniscule crumb of attention he may send her way -- even after he tells her he will never be able to be in a relationship with her. To this end she hangs around the house like a bad cold, always exclaiming "I don't want to be in the way..." The role adds a bit of comic relief while being tragically pathetic. The character of Doreen is a study in the extremes people will go to create a reality, even if that reality is built upon false hopes and cuts off their own ability to have a full and happy life.
The York Realist...a wonderfully executed play for those who love a bittersweet romance and silently say "Please don't go!" when a lover makes his final exit...
Editor's Note: Our London critic saw and liked this play two years ago and you might want to check out what she had to say as well: The York Realist in London
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The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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