The West Coast Premiere of
Also see Richard's review of Book of Days
The New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the west coast premiere of Lee Blessing’s Thief River, running through March 9. The playwright’s latest was presented at the Signature Theatre in New York in June 2001 where it received good reviews. The Wall Street Journal called it “an old fashioned gay love story - one where love is upstaged by shame, secrecy and social defiance.” That is the crux of the play that I saw on the stage of the NCTC Theatre. The New York production was 90 minutes without an intermission, whereas the west coast premier contains one intermission. The production would be better without the break since it interrupts the flow of this fragile story.
Thief is the story of Gil and Ray, who at age 17 were secret lovers in a small homophobic Minnesota town in the '40s. The plot portrays a love between these two men that spans 53 years. The early years of Gil and Ray remind me of my upbringing in a small agricultural town in Ohio and a love with another male student. The action takes place in 1948, 1973 and 2001, and six actors take over the roles of Gil and Ray at various times in their lives. These same actors also play various other characters in separate scenes. Rather then have the play unfold chronologically, the scenes are interwoven. Sometimes you are in 1948, then 2001, and back in 1973 without justification. It becomes very confusing as there is little transition, and the characters walk in and out of scenes. About halfway through the play, it becomes possible to identify the characters.
Thief River opens violently after the Junior Prom in 1948 when Gil has been beaten up by a homophobic fellow. The first scene also has a tender moment when Ray discovers the injured Gil in an old deserted barn. W. Jay Moore and Levi Damione are superb as the 17 year old lovers.
The love between Gil and Ray is largely an unrequited one, since the latter forsakes his identity as a gay man for marriage, fatherhood and tradition. Gil, who is more open as a gay person, moves to New York (Brooklyn Heights, actually) and has a succession of lovers, none of whom can erase his primary attachment of his first love. Gil and Ray, played by Andrew Nance and Leon Acord, meet again in 1973 when Gil returns to the rural town. Ray’s very homophobic son (we never see him on stage) is getting married and Ray is apparently happy being a closet homosexual. Gil has brought along his latest lover, a flamboyant 20 year who has no problem with his sexuality (well played by W. Jay Moore). We discover some shocks during the stimulating visit.
The scenes of Gil and Ray in 2001, played by wonderful veteran actors Bruce Moody and Thomas Lynch, are flawless. These scenes remind me of Lee Blessing’s Broadway play, A Walk in the Woods. The dialogue between the two men is lively and involving. Ed Decker directs the drama at a diving pace.
The playwright has attempted to show what it would be like to be a gay man in a small town in the late '40s, when two men kissing would have been a revolutionary act. As Mr. Blessing says “For a gay man, to live in this particular era must be an experience like no other in history.” I can attest to that fact, and the opening scenes of this drama brought back memories of my growing up in Ohio.
Thief River runs through March 9 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave at Market, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.