Playwright: Jonathan Harvey. At: Pride Films and Plays at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Tickets: 773-935-6875; www.pridefilmsandplays.com; $23-$25. Runs through: Feb. 17
The Thamesmead municipal housing projects, on London's easternmost fringe, in 1993 are a bleak collection of cinder-block high-rises lacking green space, commercial facilities (e.g., grocery stores) and public transportation. Its residents are those typically found in such isolated pockets of poverty, unemployment and substance abuse making for a thriving criminal culture. Who would imagine that out of this squalor could emerge neighbors bonding in quasi-kindred to forge an escape to a better life?
Playwright Jonathan Harvey, for one. His eighth-story corner-apartment residents are a sorry lot when we first meet them, to be sure. Single mother Sandra Gangel dallies with a succession of fancy men, neglecting her teenage son, Jamie, who is bullied at school for his anti-athletic proclivities. His comrades include the sexually precocious dropout Leah Russell, and the withdrawn Stephen "Ste" Pierce, himself the target for beatings by his alcoholic father and gang-banging brothers. Ah, but Mrs. Gangel perceives a future for herself and her offspring in her job as a barmaid. When fortune finally smiles upon them, she prepares to assume the role of responsible parent, not only to her own child, but to what has become a surrogate family.
For us Yanks, steeped in our Downton Abbey fantasies, nothing could be easier than to ridicule these working-class proles (as the U.S. premiere production in 1998 was inclined to do). Equally temptingand biasedwould have been to sentimentalize the same-sex affection that grows between Jamie and Ste, while caricaturing the hets as clueless bumpkins. Director John Nasca is not interested in cheap laughs, however, and has drilled his cast in the nuances of subtextual authenticity. These are reflected in the almost-minuscule hesitations that allow us to watch the characters making decisions before proceedingor notaccording to their convictions. Even Leah's meltdown during a bad acid tripusually an invitation to actorly excessadheres accurately to the mechanics of the experience under scrutiny.
The results for this Pride Films and Plays 20th-anniversary production are a refreshingly balanced narrative with boundaries reaching far beyond those of generic "coming-out" romances. Charlie Wein and Robert Hilliard sidestep cloying mannerisms in their portrayals of Ste and Jamie, as do Michelle McKenzie-Voigt, Kiah McKirnan and Patrick Rybarczyk, conferring an inherent dignity on personalities too often reduced to comic relief. Dialect instructor Jeremiah Davis may provide a glossary to the regional vernacular in the playbill, but where accord, tolerance and compassion dwell, language is no barrier.