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I like Lee Blessing’s work in general; I like very much the sensitivity Stephen Carpenter has brought to Thief River, the Blessing play he’s directed for the Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse, and I’m fairly impressed by the craft on display in the production. So why don’t I find myself much moved by it?
Partly, I think, it’s because the play’s an uneasy mix of lyrical, character-driven dramatism and purple-Gothic melodrama; if Blessing had set it in the hillbilly South instead of in Minnesota farm country, dramaturges would’ve scurried off to comb the collected works of Flannery O’Connor for citations. But mostly it’s because, for all its lovely language and intriguing characters and canny scenecraft, the 3-year-old Thief River is an issue playabout an issue other playwrights explored pretty thoroughly in the ’80s and ’90s.
On its surface, the story Blessing spins so deftly here doesn’t look like an oft-told tale: Coming-out plays, when they acknowledge the Midwest at all, tend to look down at it from the safe distance of the urban gay enclaves to which their protagonists have fled, and rare indeed is the queer play that admits the possibility of age.
The melancholy history of Gil and Ray, though, spans 50-plus years, from 1948 nearly to the present, and Blessing keeps the action resolutely down on the farm, unspooling every scene in the home a shellshocked World War II veteran built for his family the summer before he killed his wife and then himself. It’s a tumbledown, never-occupied tragedy of a farmhouse set amid fields that “go on forever and ever”; realized in the black-box space at the H Street Playhouse as a simple polygon of weathered plank flooring, the abandoned homestead exerts a powerful pull on the son who survived by the accidental virtue of his absence, and eventually on his son and grandson, too. (Blessing is concerned not just with the costs of self-denial, it quickly becomes clear, but with what harsh coin we pass on to our heritors.)
The old house attracts trouble, too, enough to make you wonder why someone hasn’t torched the place. As the action opens, it’s where the 18-year-old Gil (Peter Wylie) has fled after a disastrous prom night: A jock he’s been mooning too obviously over has beaten him to within an inch of his life, then pissed on him to seal the humiliation. Gil’s half-deranged attempt at retribution has gone tragicomically awry, and just as he finishes recounting the whole mess to the horrified Ray (Jeremy Skidmore), who’s followed him to the secluded farmhouse, the evening actually gets worse: Gil and Ray are attacked by a homicidal vagrant, who sees too clearly that they’re rather more than good friends.
From there the story leaps forward to the early ’70s (for another life-changing moment in that fateful house), then to the present, each time bringing Gil and Ray together after long years apart to hash out the consequences of that nightmare evening and the decisions they made in its aftermath. Then, having outlined its scope, the narrative splinters, leaping backward and forward in time, telling fragments of stories that inexorably puzzle themselves together into a chronicle of a love suppressed to the point of suffocation.
I almost said “true love,” but one of the unconvincing things about Thief River is its insistence on the 50-year passion the otherwise worldly Gil nurses for his shame-ridden high-school sweetheart. Ray carries much the same torch, even if he hides it resolutely under the traditional small-town bushel of wife and kid, but it’s easy enough to believe in the limits of his stunted emotional lifeparticularly given the expressive performances of the three actors who play him here in youth (Skidmore), maturity (Tim Carlin), and old age (John Feist). It’s harder to credit Gil’s continued attachment, though: He gets out, moves on to other places and other men, survives other horrors, including of course the slow-killing scourge that Ray never has to face, and somehow never quite connects with anyone else the way he clicked with Ray. That’s an awfully romantic backbone on which to hang a play, especially one that, aside from those improbable confluences of violence, is a fairly realistic take on 20th-century America’s often brutal culture of repression.
I suspect Blessing would have us believe that the shared traumas of that terrible nightthe very events that divide Gil and Ray for so longare what tie them so inescapably together, distance or no. But the story of those hours, once it’s finally told, is just improbable enough to undermine that argument, and without its foundation the play’s central relationship rings just false enough to sap it of power. More distancing, at least for a gay audience, is the realization that under its very polished surface, Thief River is making the same “oh, how sad” argument for acceptance that any number of playwrightsmany, unlike Blessing, queer themselvesmade between Suddenly, Last Summer and Angels in America. There was a time when it wasn’t an off-putting approach, but it was a short span, and in the wake of Shopping and Fucking, it’s long past. I had to double-check the publication date to be sure Thief River wasn’t an artifact of an earlier decadeand when I confirmed that it was developed in this one, I couldn’t but wonder what moved Blessing to take the subject up.
Yet this writerlike Terrence McNally, whose work is often a good deal emptieris such a consummate craftsman that it’s easy to get caught up in the rhythms of his storytelling. Structurally, Thief River is a 90-minute jewel; the scenes swell and dawdle and crash in patterns as organic as the tides, and Blessing knows precisely when a heartfelt moment has gone on long enough to need a lash of acid humor. The principal characters are strong enough that underconceived minor figuresthat vagrant, middle Gil’s (R. Scott Williams) shrill ’70s-era boyfrienddon’t substantially weaken the whole. The language is as subtle and as penetrating as its sharpest observations. (“That’s how you fall in love,” Ray observes, remembering a long-ago afternoon of forbidden conversation and dangerous trust: “One confession at a time.”) And in the final scene, Blessing finds just the right rueful tone for a settling of affairs between a man who’s lived too long hiding from love and a man who’s lived too long holding on to it.
Carpenter directs that closing scene with the same thorough understanding of Blessing’s strengths that he demonstrates throughout the play, and Feist plays it exquisitely, with sturdy support from John Dow (the oldest of the three Gils). There’s a sweetly spiky chemistry, too, between Feist’s elderly Ray and his young grandsonWylie again, as convincingly self-assured and well-adjusted in that role as he is frantic and desperate as the youngest Gil. It’s one of a handful of genuinely lambent scenes in a show drawn in darker shadesa gorgeous, honest moment of truth that transcends the fictions it’s built on. CP