Playwrights: Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer. At: Pride Films and Plays at Piccolo Theatre, 600 Main St., Evanston. Tickets: 800-737-0984 or www.pridefilmsandplays.com; $22-$27. Runs through Jan. 31
There's a great joy in watching a gay-history play like Ten Dollar House. Husband-and-wife playwrights Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer insightfully realized great dramatic potential in the Depression-era romantic story of Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum, two men whose passion for historic preservation and small-town life left a lasting legacy via the Pendarvis historic district in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
That said, it does pain me to say that Ten Dollar House is far from perfect in Pride Films and Plays' Chicago-area premiere. Some of that can be chalked up to the uneven casting and questionable staging choices by director Michael D. Graham. There's also some script issues, too.
Much of the exposition is clunky, especially when delivered by actors like Tom Chiola and Jean Marie Koon as wealthy brother and sister characters William Gundry and Marjorie King. Both Chiola and Koon also could work at finessing out the laughs in their dialogue.
But things pick up with the arrival of Robert Neal, played as a worldly effete and design dandy by Scott Patrick Sawa. As Neal, Sawa carefully and honestly keeps his performance from veering into caricature even with all the overly witty and sarcastic quips in the script.
As the much butcher laborer Edward Hellum, Joe Anderson is very good, too. Yet Anderson's portrayal of Edward's conflicted aloofness of a man afraid of getting a reputation over his sexuality comes off more like a blank page instead of a real sense of inner turmoil churning from within.
Mindy Barber is very proficient as the Madison reporter Betty Cass, whose main purpose is to narrate historical background, forward the story along and to bring publicity to Neal and Hellum's insightful work.
Director Graham does a generally good job at steering the story along as love blossoms between Neal and Hellum as they scramble to restore derelict Cornish cottages and build an antiques business. But one questionable staging decision involves old-lady drag, injecting a moment of camp silliness that feels out of tune with the overall earnest tone of the piece.
In Ten Dollar House, Kinnebrew and Meyer do an extremely adept job of fitting in so much biographical and historical detail into such an entertaining romantic story of ingenuity against the odds. Now if only they could fix up the ending, since the play suffers from what feels like successive conclusions that overstays the play's welcome.
If I'm being too hard on Ten Dollar House, it's because there's so much that is great about it that you wouldn't want the current imperfections to prevent it from finding a future life in other regional theaters. For too long, amazing stories of LGBTQ history and romance have been untold or suppressed, so Ten Dollar House skillfully and engagingly helps to redress that imbalance.