Chicago Theater Company, an Equity-affiliated company that’s been around for twenty-one years presenting African-American themed work, has found a hit with this new play by L. Trey Wilson that has already opened to positive reviews and awards this year in Minneapolis and Chicago. It concerns a play within a play in rehearsal, apparently in a major off-Broadway production, in which two young urban African-American men seem to be falling into a romantic and sexual relationship, and the realization of that is more comfortable for one of the characters than the other. Their sexual tension comes to a boil when the two share a brief and unexpected kiss. This scripted kiss sparks tension offstage as well when the straight actor Rod (Ronnel Taylor) playing one of the men finds he’s unable to kiss his gay castmate Gary (Sati Word) when called to do so in rehearsal. The play-within-a-play’s straight director Jay (Lionel Gentle) is willing to consider a compromise of a faked “stage kiss” just to get the show up, while its author Terry (La’ Mons Sparks) – a hot young gay writer seeking a crossover success - is surprisingly amenable to that solution as well.
Though it’s not hard to believe a straight actor might have issues with an onstage same-sex kiss, it’s about as easy to have sympathy for such an actor as it is to feel sorry for an airline pilot with acrophobia. The author seems to agree, and in the second act the crisis becomes less about Rod’s possible homophobia and more about Terry’s desire for professional and personal acceptance. Gary, a sexually active, moderately pushy guy with activist sensibilities, is the only one to find the compromise unacceptable. He not only accuses Terry of selling out by keeping his gay characters sexless and tragic to stay within the comfort zone of straight audiences, he suggests Terry is guarded and secretive with straight friends to order to win their approval.
Wilson’s writing has a believable, naturalistic style that is both a strength and a weakness of the piece. He’s to be admired for creating neither heroes nor villains. When Rod says that he’s not trying to hurt anyone, but just wants to stay where he’s comfortable, we believe him. His homophobia is seen by the others (and possibly even himself) as a bit out-of-touch and almost amusing rather than threatening. Gary, who might have been simply shrill, is made sympathetic through his winning sense of humor and a subplot in which we see how unlucky he is in love. In between these two characters is Jay - perhaps too reasonable and willing to see conflicting points of view – and Terry, who remains a curious cipher in his apparent indifference to the creative crisis caused by Rod’s fear of kissing Gary. As a result, not a lot actually “happens” in the first act, and the play feels like a good one-act expanded unnecessarily into two. Wilson’s dialogue, entirely up-to-the minute and believable is sometimes so colloquial it sounds mundane, but at other points, like Rod’s "not trying ot hurt anyone" speech, it can be quite moving. Gary’s final scene, in which he implores Terry to “write for us” (the gay community) is quite moving even though it is a direct explanation of Wilson's theme.
With both Jay and Terry so indecisive, it’s Gary and Rod who demand our attention. Credit for that is due in equal measure to Wilson’s writing and the performances of Sati Word as Gary and Ronnel Taylor as Rod. Word builds the character from a fun-loving, easygoing guy who’s initially amused by Rod’s reluctance to kiss to one genuinely angered and saddened by the situation. Taylor easily captures the macho swagger of his actor, but finds the comedy in his predicament and enables us to empathize with and even like the character. Lionel Gentle is less successful as Jay, and while Wilson seems to have kept him intentionally bland, Gentle finds little subtext with which to fill the character out. La’ Mons Starks, who recently took over the role of Terry from Jesse Dean Stanford, Jr., is similarly adrift until the final scene when he displays some fine acting chops as his character takes an unexpected turn. Understudy Derrick Cole Wesby is powerful in a small part.
Director Delia Gray gives the production a quick pace and light touch. The opening scene, in which the actor characters experiment with different takes on the play-within-a-play is especially impressive. The set by Peter Chatman is a rehearsal set representing a city park that magically becomes more elaborate when we see the play-within-a-play in performance during the final scene.
Stage Directions, while a problematic piece, has much to recommend it. L. Trey Wilson is a writer to watch, and it is a particular treat to be introduced to the work of Sati Word and Ronnel Taylor. It would be great for it to transfer to a North Side venue where a whole new audience could learn about these artists and ponder the questions Stage Directions raises.
Stage Directions will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., through December 18, 2005 at the Chicago Theater Company, in the Parkway Community House, 500 E. 67th St., Chicago. Tickets can be purchased by phone at 773-493-0901 or 773-493-5360. Parking is available off-street and in the Parkway Community House lot.