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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
--- Review of Premiere Production at New York's Signature Theater ---
Lee Blessing's Thief River, which opened last Sunday at the Signature Theatre, could easily be written off as another story of gay love, as could its undercurrents of gay bashing violence. Thanks to a combination of elements -- sharp dialogue and an intriguing non-linear structure. . . adroit direction . . . vivid and versatile performances by the six-member cast -- this world premiere neatly sidesteps its potential for cliches to provide a stirring and well-paced ninety minutes. The American Midwest farm country background and the criss-crossing between episodes in the fifty-four-year relationship of its star-crossed lovers enlarges their story into a chronicle of a passing way of life in small towns like Thief River.
The first scene begins at the beginning, with the two protagonists, Gil and Ray (Jeffrey Carlson as Gil 1 and Erik Sorenson as Ray 1), at seventeen. Gil, bursts on stage with a volley of curses and as the lights go up we see why. He's been severely beaten by a homophobic fellow high school senior and as Ray helps him to get cleaned up we see the flame burning between them (that's without any explicit sex in this or any other scene). It is clear that Gil is what he is, while Ray is deeply conflicted about the love that in 1948 was still dangerously unacceptable. Both actors are superb in these roles as well as in the second part each plays; but it bears mentioning that Jeffrey Carlson, who's fresh out of the Juilliard Drama School, should be getting plenty of casting calls from this very auspicious Off-Broadway debut.
The at once tender and violent opening scene, like all that follow, takes place in an unfurnished farmhouse living room (Marjorie Bradley Kellog evokes its unoccupied state with the torn patches in the floral wall paper and the dried leaves edging the moldings). Each scene ends in a climactic moment and contains some striking images, especially the moments when lighting designer Pat Collins spotlights individual characters in the living room's doorway.
While attention must be paid to get into the skip-about unfolding of Gil and Ray's relationship (actually, mostly a non-relationship), it's never difficult to follow the sequence of events. Instead, Mr. Blessing's methodology adds a certain dramatic piquancy and suspense to the telling of this tale. Director Lamos sees to it that the six actors transition between their main and subsidiary roles smoothly and with utmost clarity as to who's who, their secondary selves slyly reversing the mindset and personalities of their main characters. Thus Jeffrey Carlson segues between the fearful and guarded teen-aged Gil and old Ray's nonchalantly modern-minded grandson; Greg Edelman plays the solid citizen, middle-aged Ray as well as the homophobic Harlan 's born-again Christian nephew; and Frank Converse plays both Old Ray and his tough grandfather. In fact, these transitions are so seamless and clear that having all the Rays wear plaid shirts and all the Gils wearing jeans, is a nice but unnecessary touch.
There's a lot of hopscotching around different time periods, but Thief River is basically divided into three pivotal events in Gil and Ray's life, each at least a quarter century apart: the violence shadowed adolescent love affair in the 1948 when Gil and Ray's relationship was still very much the love that dare not speak its name. . . Gil's return to Thief River in 1973, after the conventionally married, upstanding citizen Ray's weekly letters to Gil have ceased and on the occasion of a never seen Ray Junior's marriage . . . the 2001 reunion of the two as old men which attempts to bring closure to their relationship and the violence dating back to their teens which involved Harlow, the nasty gay bashing vagrant Harlow and Ray's grandfather Anson.
The play is not without humor, but, on balance, it is a sorrowful tale of repressed passion and missed "chances not to be alone any more." Ray is a respected citizen and family man but he and his wife communicate in "emotional sign language." Gil, is freer about his sexual identity but as Ray can't leave the boundaries of his birthplace, Gil is a travel writer who can't bring himself to fly to all the places he might write about. Overarching these men's personal lives are the tragedies caused by the erosion of the American farm and the AIDS epidemic.
You could sum up the tragedy of what could have been a satisfying love affair by playing anagrams with Gil and Ray's names. Substitute the first letter of Ray's name with the first letter of Gil's and you have what Gil freely admits to being and what Ray dares not be. Put the first letter of Gil's name in front of Ray's and you get the word which best describes how Ray's fear of his own emotions colors their relationship. Like the farm house that sits on Ray's property unused and unfurnished, both men's lives have remained emotionally empty -- at least until it's too late for more than a bittersweet ending.
As you walk out of the theater, some of the contrivances in the plot may start to niggle at you -- but not enough to spoil your empathy for the characters and the memory of six wonderful performances.
Written by Lee Blessing
Directed by Mark Lamos
Cast: Jeffrey Carlson (Gil 1 and Jody), Erik Sorensen (Ray 1 and Kit), Neil Maffin (Gil 2 and Harlow), Gregg Edelman (Ray 2 and Reese), Remak Ramsay (Gil 3 and Perry) and Frank Converse (Ray 3 and Anson).
Set Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Music and Sound Design: John Gromada
Fight Direction: B.H. Barry
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Signature Theatre Company, 42nd St. (11th.12th Ave)212-244-7529
5/20//01-6/17/02; opening 6/20/01
Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm-- $47.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/22 performance
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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