Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of The Originalist
For Tim, the untethered life was not a choice. He was laid off from his job and divorced by his wife, and without finding other work, moved back home where he cries himself to sleep every night. To be honest, we don't know to what extent he contributed to his downward spiral. Was he actually "laid off," or was he fired? Did he give his wife cause to turn him out? By appearances, his efforts to find new employment seem less than whole hearted. And there is that bottle of booze he keeps hidden in a dresser drawer. We don't really know, but Hansen's heartfelt portrayal of Tim draws upon our sympathies, and we want to believe he is blameless.
Tim's plan to improve his image as a father in his daughter's eyes by reading "Jane Eyre," the book currently being taught in her AP English class, so that he can have meaningful conversations about it with her, impresses as an earnest, if perhaps facile, effort, whereas, we might have instead focused on the question "so, what kind of father has he been up till now?" Even in the battle of the beds, I found myself on rooting for Tim.
Ron was not cast out, but rather chose his plight. He left his wife and teenage daughter, who have tolerated his depressive moods and his affairs, when his wife received a grim medical diagnosis. Clearly that is just the straw that broke his weary back. It seems he has been despondent all of his life. A devoted wife and daughter, and a professional career (he has a dental practice) are not enough to draw open the drapes of gloom that encircle him. Looking at him, we see an emotionally stunted boy in a man's body, as when his mother Susan (Linda Kelsey, superb) refuses to allow him a slice of pie from her refrigerator, and he whines "Ma, why are you so mean to me?" in the voice of a fourteen-year-old. Later, he admits to still having the same dreams and desires as when he was thirteen and played out scenes of the adult life he hoped for while staring at the ceiling above his childhood bed.
While we are aware of Ron's flaws from the start, Hopman delivers an open window into the pain that has always been his companion, so we can understand that he has learned know other way to conduct his life, or to conquer that haunting pain.
Susan, the mother who raised both of these boys on her own after her husband died when the boys were only 8 and 9, clearly has struggled to do what was necessary, which included going back to work and providing for her family. It was a burden she didn't expect or want, but she soldiered on and did what was necessary. Now she is retired, trying to make a life for herself free of encumbrances, which does not include mothering two grown men. She can't even consider the question of whether or not she loves them, only that she raised them and had put whatever instincts or impulses enabled her to do that to rest.
Kelsey gives Susan a tough veneer, which she needs in order to meet whatever the rest of her life has to offer. But within the hard heart with which she manages her sons is a well of love, which she openly offers to her granddaughter Roann.
Roann (Lucy Farrell) is Ron's daughter who appears in hopes that her father will come to her and her mother. Farrell is exceptional in presenting the sensibility of a girl on the cusp of womanhood, still in need of a family even if she can affect an air of self-possession. The play is a balancing act of tense moments between Ron, Susan and Tim until Roann appears. With her arrival, the space is filled with the specter of consequences, pitting Ron's obsessive need to escape his life and Tim's fatalism about losing his against the imprint they leave behind.
The play, about ninety minutes without intermission, begins with a tenuously light touch, with the tension and the stakes steadily rising, leading to an altogether satisfying conclusion, thanks to Brian Balcom's adroit direction, the work of four outstanding actors performing in perfect sync with one another, and a smart, surprising script by playwright Johnson.
Carl Schoenborn has laid out a setting that works extremely well for this play, giving us Susan's lived-in looking kitchen and the room in her house that has remained "the boys' room" decades after they outgrew a need for it, connected by an offstage corridor. During some scenes we can observe the characters' behavior in both rooms at the same time, which adds to our feeling of being there. Schoenborn also designed lighting that contributes to the emotional temperature and draws our attention to where it needs to be. Aaron Newman's sound design and Sarah Bauer's costumes and prop designs serve the production well.
About that squabble over the bed. It is written, performed and staged with such precise and authentic rancor, calling into question the tenacity of childhood sense of place thirty years after the door has closed on childhood. The ferocity with which beds are moved and bed linens changed is simultaneously hilarious, disturbing and touching. The scene manages the trick of being unlikely and authentic at one and the same time. I would return to The Boys Room if only for that scene, but fortunately, every bit of this play bears watching.
The Boys Room is an excellent play that seemed to pop up from nowhere. It is the first production produced by Gremlin Theatre since the pandemic shutdown (although other companies have mounted shows in Gremlin's space) and a solid choice for their return. Playwright Joel Drake Johnson, who died in 2020, left behind a string of well-received plays in Chicago with five nominations for Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play, and productions at Steppenwolf Theater and Victory Gardens Theater, where The Boys Room was first staged. His best-known play, Rashida Speaking, was given an acclaimed and starry Off-Broadway production in 2015 and has been on my "have to see it someday list" ever since, but I was unfamiliar with any of Johnson's other work.
If The Boys Room is any indication, I hope to see much more of his work and advise you to do the same. Meanwhile, thanks to Artistic Director Peter Christian Hansen and the rest of the Gremlin Theatre team, we can get a powerful start by heading over to The Boys Room now.
The Boys Room continues through November 27, 2022, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $32.00; Seniors: $28.00; Under Age 30 - $16.00. For tickets go to gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-71 TICKETS.
Playwright: Joel Drake Johnson; Director: Brian Balcom; Scenic and Light Designer: Carl Schoenborn; Costume and Prop Design: Sarah Bauer; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: Lucy Farrell (Roann), Peter Christian Hansen (Tim), Dan Hopman (Ron), Linda Kelsey (Susan).