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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Will Fellows's book Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest, put a face on the gay experience in the rural Midwest during the past century. With Fellows' blessings, Dean Gray and Amy Fox have fictionalized several of these oral histories and turned them into a drama, also called Farm Boys that is currently making its debut at the Blue Heron Theatre.
With a very moving production of Lee Blessing's Thief River (also about gay men in the Midwest farm belt) at Barringston Stage still fresh in my mind, I was eager to see this new work -- especially since David Drake who was a standout in Blessing's play, was to co-star with Thomas James O'Leary, whose performance in the Blue Heron's Bee-Luther-Hatchee I also liked.
Sad to say, while Farm Boys is not without merit, it fails to live up to my expectations. Drake and O'Leary play their parts well and Daniel Ettinger has created a splendidly workmanlike set that includes a fence on which a landscape has been painted to evoke the physical appeal of farm life. However, what Fox and Gray have done to turn oral history into a stage vehicle lacks the freshness and heart tug that made Thief River moving and memorable both times I saw it.
The adapters have devised is straightforward enough plot. It unfolds in Colby, Wisconsin, a Christian right dominated farm community, which John (O'Leary) left as a teenager during the early 1980s and to which he returns with his partner Kim (Drake) to deal with the farm left to him by his boyhood lover Lyle (Jim Madden) who has been felled by a heart attack at age fifty-five. The dramatic arc turns on John's decision as to whether to sell the farm to one of the large syndicates that have contributed to the erosion of family owned farms (a subject for a whole other play) or to try to enjoy it despite the still hostile to homosexuals climate. This being a play, that decision is complicated by a host of other problems.
We learn that John has forged a career in publishing in New York and, except for his brief relationship with Lyle, harbors few good memories of his boyhood. Beautiful as the farm Lyle deeded to him is, John has no intention of living on it and being back in Colby stirs up unsettling memories via flashbacks with a ghostly Lyle. To exacerbate the decision about what to do with the farm, the men's relationship and professional lives are at a crossroads -- John is between jobs and Kim, a choreographer, feels worn out by the New York rat rate and frustrated with the emotional distance between him and John., He feels getting to know John's roots will bring them closer together and finds himself envisoning the farm as a restorative creative haven.
Besides Lyle's ghost to nudge John into dealing with his past in order to cope with his present, there are two other characters: Lyle's ex-wife Lois (Joan Grant) and Keith (Craig Jorczak), a still tightly closeted but obviously gay teenager. Lois has come from Minnesota where she now lives to welcome John to the farm. Colby still exerts a strong pull on her emotions and her return to the farm rouses feelings of unburied regrets even though, unlike Colby's populace, she accepted Lyle's homosexuality and moved on with her life to become a teacher and remarry. Ms. Grant fully captures the motherly warmth of this childless woman, the play's only non-standard issue character. Craig Jorczak gives a strong and believable performance as the teen ager who faces the choice of adhering to church dictates (like Lyle) or claiming his sexual identity (like John and Kim). Unfortunately, his character is too much a convenient authorial device.
Jim Pelegano, who so ably directed Bee-Luther-Hatchee, doesn't help matters with his often awkwardly staged flashbacks. To add to the negatives, Jim Madden, an actor whose experience seems to be mostly in musical theater, is not the best possible choice to play Lyle. He often looks as if he's about to burst into song and is especially unconvincing as his character's vulnerable, thirty-five-year-old self.
Judging from my colleague Les Gutman's review of Ms. Fox's previous play, Summer Cyclone, Farm Boys' shortcomings can't be attributed to an inept playwright. Instead, this may be another instance where a book that is particularly resistant to page to stage migration. While Fox and Gray's effort to dramatize Mr. Fellows' oral histories does hit the mark with intermittently touching moments, these bulls eye moments aren't enough to lift Farm Boys above the nice try category.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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