Playwright: Robert Anderson. At: The Artistic Home at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252; www.stage773.org; $28-$32. Runs through: April 22
One reason that Robert Anderson's 1953 play is conspicuously absent from the annals of early gay drama is that although its topic is a teenage boy accused of being queer, the dramatic question is not "is he or isn't he?" or even, "so what if he is?" but "who says he is?" In other words, it's the universal dilemma of self-definition vs. acceptance of others' judgments, whether friend or foe. Nowadays, the more problematic issue is that of an authority figurein this case, a faculty wifeoffering her affections to the troubled student as a test of his sexual preferences.
Oh, it's all legal: Tom Lee is 18barelyand Laura Reynolds, by declaring her intent to leave her super-jock husband, has, in effect, relinquished any claim to administrative status. Still, while she is clearly distinguishable from the campus cougars who deliberately tease the hormone-racked adolescents, as well as the freethinking male professors who claim to see nothing unseemly in skinny-dipping with minors, when the bewildered Mr. Reynolds notes his spouse's propensity for "mothering" sensitive youths on the brink of adulthood, we can't help but wonder if he might have a point.
If all of Anderson's het males were portrayed as thuggish pigs, it would be easy for us to jeer (as several opening-night playgoers did) at the rigid gender roles prevalent in the post-WW II years. Director David New chooses to address the more timely existential question of individual identity, however, instructing his actors to look beneath the surface of what their characters may profess for hints of doubt regarding their society's insistence on "learning to run with the other horses," and in doing so, rendering the text's ambiguitiessome maybe undetected by the authorto develop on their own merits.
Thus it is that the character most engaging our sympathies is not the lad suffering under his peers' bullying and his father's disappointment, nor the woman frustrated by her wedded partner's disaffinity for the attention she cravesthough Andrew Cutler and Kate Tummelson acquit themselves admirably as the saintly cross-generation loversbut Peter DeFaria's Reynolds, whose allegiance to the masculine values of his age belies his visible desire for the intimacy denied him. Following the Artistic Home's fresh look at this American classic, the question beguiling us is what lie he lives, and how long will he wait for history to liberate him from the herd?