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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
There are a great many plays (not to mention films, television shows and books) about the effects of depriving an adopted child of his or her biological heritage. Kilt takes a slightly different tilt, considering what happens when a mother chooses to deprive her son (his father dead, his maternal grandfather a continent away) of an accurate awareness of his lineage. The trigger for unveiling the truth -- also a common one in theater -- is the grandfather's funeral.
Tom (Chris Payne Gilbert) is a gay go-go dancer. His "shtick" is that he dances in his grandfather's kilt (with lots of air underneath). At a strip club called "The Ranch", he is known as Tartan Tom. He comes by his dancing honestly: his mother, Esther (Tovah Feldshuh), runs a Highland Dance school in Hamilton, Ontario; he was one of her star pupils. Esther moved from Scotland to Canada after her husband's death, and was not fond of looking back. Insisting that Tom accompany her back to Scotland for the funeral opens a pandora's box of revelations, the lid of which she is unable to resecure.
There are two catalysts for what unfolds (none of it terribly unanticipated, although I'll spare readers the details because it really ought to be one's own discovery), Esther's very different younger sister, Mary (Kathleen Doyle), and an older man, David (Herb Foster), whom Tom meets quite coïncidentally in a Glasgow park. Suffice it to say Tom learns plenty about his ancestors (at least his father and maternal grandfather), and Esther is carried kicking and screaming to an inevitable reconciliation.
Jonathan Wilson, a Canadian playwright, has structured his play quite well. Opening scenes establish the characters of Tom and Esther, and their relationship, exceptionally well. There are also flashback scenes revealing a romantic relationship between the grandfather, Mac (also Mr. Gilbert), and an army captain, Lavery (Jamie Harris), during World War II. (Tom, it is learned, has more in common to Mac than the striking physical resemblance.) Kathleen Doyle needs little help from the script in conveying Mary's nature. Ditto for Herb Foster's David, even if the circumstances of his involvement are a little too neatly packaged to believe.
Jack Hofsiss has directed both attentively and quite nimbly, especially considering a set which struck me as clumsy. Lighting and costume design are excellent, the former effective but unobtrusive, the latter particularly apt. And the sound design was excellent, successfully delivering the significant music in a space in which this has sometimes been a problem. Not surprisingly, there is also a good deal of dancing in the show, mostly of the Scottish variety, and choreographer Seán Curran has done a terrific job of staging it and (presumably) teaching all of the steps to the not-very-Scottish cast members (most notably Gilbert and Feldshuh).
But what distinguishes the play is its writing -- more facile and well-considered than many -- and even more so the performances. Gilbert is delightfully engaging as the generally good-humored but perplexed and frustrated son; Feldshuh outstanding as the priggish, tightly wound Esther. Better still (indeed, fantastic) is Kathleen Doyle whose Mary, loose, simple and joyful in a way her elder sister could neither imagine nor approve of. Herb Foster is thoroughly believable in his sensitive portrayal of David. Mr. Harris's Lavery is of lesser importance but not nearly as satisfying.
For all of its strengths, and they do redeem it, the play is not perfect. One might say, actually, that it is a tad too perfect. This is particularly true in the execution of its revelations (which are also telegraphed so obviously that they lose something along the way) and in the inevitable reconciliation with which it ends. I also had a sense that it could have been something more dramatically; Mr. Wilson treads in the mother-son, sister-sister relationships, and in the various gay undercurrents, but could have plumbed the depths more assiduously.
What we are left with is a play that is enjoyable, funny, entertaining and at times poignant. Not bad for an evening at the theater, and certainly one of the better efforts of recent memory (in a season not likely to be remembered for a great many outstanding efforts). There has been talk of this show being moved to Broadway. That would be a shame: it's not likely to fare especially well there, although a respectable off-Broadway run, perhaps in a theater more substantial than its current home, should be most welcome.
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