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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Tea and Sympathy

Also see Tracy's review of Black Mile

Tea and Sympathy
William Aitken, Sheri Herren
and Joe Baker

Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama, is too often remembered as a story about a sensitive teenage boy “saved” from the “threat” of homosexuality by the ministrations of a kind older woman – not just a dated view of sexuality, but too infuriating and patronizing to even consider presenting today. American Century Theatre’s current production of the play brings out that the nature of sexuality isn’t Anderson’s primary subject at all, conformity is.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola makes this point in a subtle, almost subliminal way: as Laura Reynolds (Sheri S. Herren), wife of a prep-school teacher, sits reading poetry, a radio plays one of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic speeches about the insidious danger of Communism. Similarly, in the insular world of the all-male school, to people like Laura’s husband Bill (Carl Randolph), men who are not the traditional macho, muscular “regular fellows” are considered just as threatening as Communists were in the larger world.

Tom Lee (Joe Baker) stands alone in this environment as dangerously “different.” He’s shy and bookish, enjoys singing, and acts the female leads in the school plays. He finds Laura a kindred spirit, as she is a former actress with insights no one else can really appreciate. In Mazzola’s staging, the nature of their connection is evident (but not overdone) from their first scene together, making the resolution organically appropriate.

Baker is the right age for the role, a high-school senior, and his performance is fearlessly open and remarkably skilled for a young performer. Herren ably conveys the character’s discomfort with the repressions and frustrations she has to face, and the shy pleasure she finds sharing her opinions and life experiences with Tom.

With such a nuanced reading of the relationship between Laura and Tom, the risk exists of Bill becoming a stereotyped heavy. Instead, Randolph portrays Bill as a prisoner of his society’s expectations. He is afraid to admit to his feelings, preferring to hide behind the stereotype of the tough man, always in control.

The rest of the cast is fine, although Bill Aitken as Tom’s father registers especially strongly with the shifting blend of pride, anger, pity and frustration he feels toward a son he can’t understand. Kathryn Fuller makes the most of her two scenes as Laura’s friend, a fellow faculty wife and would-be bombshell.

Matt Soule’s ingenious set in Gunston Theatre II’s black box space places the audience on two facing sides, with the Reynolds’ drawing room to one side and, up a few stairs, Tom’s bedroom to the other. The lighting design by Marianne Meadows fills in the blanks, and adds to the overall illusion.

American Century Theatre
Tea and Sympathy
January 6th – February 5th
By Robert Anderson
Laura Reynolds: Sheri S. Herren
Bill Reynolds: Carl Randolph
Tom Lee: Joe Baker
Herb Lee: William Aitken
Lilly Sears: Kathryn Fuller
Mr. Harris: Brian Crane
Al: Jeff Consoletti
Steve: Devon Schall
Ralph: Michael W. Bigley
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA
Ticket Information: 703-553-8782 or www.americancentury.org


Photo: Jeff Bell Photography


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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