Emily Dalton and Jordan Brown in Time Is on Our Side. Credit: DJ Corey Photography

This fall, doors are reopening, seasons are being announced, and tickets are on sale—something previously routine that feels especially precious 17 months after COVID-19 closed area theaters. If press night for Perisphere Theater’s production of R. Eric ThomasTime Is on Our Side at the Silver Stage Black Box is any indication, this season’s new normal will include temperature checks and showing a vaccination card at the door and seating masked at less-than-a-quarter capacity.

The play opens with a sound montage (by artistic director and dramaturg Kevin O’Connell) that prominently features the cowbells from The Chamber Brothers‘ “Time Has Come Today” as a leitmotif.  Sitting across from one another are Curtis (Jordan Brown) and Annie (Emily Dalton), hosts of The Schuylkill River Project, a podcast about Philadelphia history recorded in the South Philadelphia house Annie inherited from her grandparents. Inside, peeling layers of wallpaper and crumbling plaster reveal the laths underneath. The floor’s disrepair similarly shows layers: linoleum tiles over floral-patterned ceramic tiles over floorboards (just two visual illustrations of the themes of historical concealment and rediscovery by set designer Greg Stevens).

Most of their episodes follow a familiar format: podcast cohosts bantering about their research, with tangents and anecdotes that make the hosts’ personalities central. But once a month, they produce an original radio dramatization of their research with local voice actors Claudia (Pauline Lamb, who also serves as properties designer) and Rene (Leo Delgado). Thomas is cleverly leaning on the fourth wall here: Not only is the play’s opening sound montage the podcast’s opening montage, but when Lamb and Delgado double as other characters, the audience is led to wonder if it is a pragmatic effort to keep to a small cast or if, since the actors are playing actors, it is a plot point.

During a break in recording dialogue for a new radio drama about a Philadelphia stop on the Underground Railroad, Claudia discovers an old diary belonging to Annie’s grandmother, Gisella (Lamb), that had been stashed in a secret compartment in a music box. The entries are dated from 1966 to 1994, and much of it details Gisella’s friendship with Bea, a fellow schoolteacher. Curtis reads between the lines and suspects they were in love. Annie, despite being a lesbian, has a hard time entertaining the possibility she is not the first in her family, and despite being the host of podcast that dramatizes the lives of lesser known people in local history, she is further unnerved by Curtis’ overzealous digging before she is ready—even after it becomes obvious Gisella and her husband Lawrence (Delgado), a carpenter and ward leader with a penchant for progressive causes and a day planner that is so quotidian it seems cryptic, had ties with gay rights activists of their generation. 

Thomas’ script is intimately epic, recreating a Philadelphia that is vivid even for those who have not spent a day there in many years, in which queer millennial characters have messy reactions as they discover just how little they know of the history of gay and lesbian life before the AIDS crisis, before Stonewall, in a city that is neither New York nor San Francisco, when “queer” was still exclusively a slur, when the closet was often the safest choice even for people who knew exactly who they were and whom they loved. It’s not just a question of whether they have a right to unearth the past: Can they even understand it fully? Of the main characters, only the decidedly unscholarly Rene has cultivated friendships with his gay elders, such as the unapologetically camp and randy Mr. Ramondi (Lamb), from whom he has learned the lost art of cruising. In turn, Rene teaches Curtis in a memorable bit of comic choreography.

As Annie and Curtis, Dalton and Brown create a great on-stage chemistry. Whether through their delivery of on-mic podcaster banter or contrasting body language, they quickly establish that the characters are the sort of friends who can and will push each other’s boundaries. After so many months of virtual theater when eye contact was impossible, it’s a revelation to see an actor like Lamb use her eyes to paint the experience of an open space like the city park that Thomas has written.

Gerrad Alex Taylor’s directorial hand is not immediately obvious, but there is clearly an intelligence and artistry coordinating the script, performances, and the design elements, which demonstrate that a small theater troupe like Perisphere is perfectly capable of the grand storytelling that makes it worth returning to the theaters at this point in our history.

At Silver Spring Black Box Theatre to Aug. 28. 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. $16–$32. perispheretheater.com.