Arrangement for Two Violas
Visions & Voices Theatre Company
at Chicago Dramatists
What troubled me most when 11 states voted to ban gay marriage last week was that so many of the voters who turned out to do so were humble, hardworking Christians who wanted nothing more than to do the right thing. Having grown up in a western Kansas town of 1,200 people, I'm used to red state goodness and its inherent contradictions. Your mom is diagnosed with cancer, and they're on your doorstep before sundown with a meat loaf. Your house gets leveled by a tornado, and caravans arrive from 100 miles away with boxes of clothes and canned goods. Lose your job just as your daughter needs an operation, and dollars to doughnuts there's a church fund-raiser on the horizon. But if your bachelor son in Seattle dies of AIDS, you should probably tell everyone it was hepatitis C.
If a play like Susan Lieberman's elegant, plainspoken Arrangement for Two Violas--about two gay doctors in 1938 Wisconsin--opened anywhere in Kansas, its audience would be greeted by a picket line. Members of Fred Phelps's Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church regularly protest any performing-arts event within a day's drive. (When I was a student at Kansas State University, Phelps's minions protested every musical my friends and I ever appeared in, including a uniquely ungay production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.) While most Kansas churchgoers are ashamed of Phelps's "God hates fags" rhetoric, many also draw a perverse comfort from his existence: he allows Christians in meat loaf country to be antihate without being progay. Such rationalization is what opened the door for 11 gay-marriage bans, and it's what makes red state "tolerance" no different in its effect than hard-nosed bigotry.
Lieberman's play had the good fortune to open only four days after the marriage bans: in this world premiere by Visions and Voices Theatre Company, a small-town secret romance illuminates the electoral map. In fact the timing makes it difficult to quibble with Lieberman's occasionally didactic language since overall her play offers a sweepingly accurate depiction of the growing "two Americas" problem.
The simple-as-pie story is narrated by Peter, a country doctor in the tiny town of Rockland, Wisconsin. His closest friends are an elderly couple, Karl and Nan, who publish the local newspaper and endure religious protests for their support of Margaret Sanger. They worry endlessly about Peter's inability to find a good woman, and in an effort to nudge him into a social life introduce him to Henry, a Milwaukee-based pulmonary specialist who shares his love of classical music. The resulting secret courtship is agonizing for both men.
Lieberman creates human analogues for red and blue America--the humble, unassuming social conservative Peter and the sophisticated, razor-tongued Henry--then steps back to let them have at each other. Much to the play's benefit, director Ann Filmer has cast John Sanders as the country mouse and Stephen Rader as the silk-pajamaed city mouse. The tenderness with which they approach the men's prickly romance is completely disarming. And both actors allow the relationship to develop so naturally that you find yourself rooting for them the way you might for close friends to work out their marital problems--or for the factions in our country to come to some understanding. Like Peter, Karl and Nan (Gene Cordon and Marssie Mencotti) are good country folk whose traditional values are at war with their cultural enlightenment. They live in a world where a trip to Milwaukee to hear the amateur orchestra is a major event, and where a man knowing how another man takes his coffee indicates that they're indulging in mortal sin.
But the play's finest accomplishment is its portrayal of the conflict between the two lovers. Peter refuses to acknowledge the romance publicly, knowing it will destroy his career and, perhaps more important, because immodest self-revelation turns his stomach. Meanwhile Henry believes that to deny their relationship is inhuman and that the prejudice against it is an injustice that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops. The two viewpoints are, of course, mutually exclusive and eventually destroy the relationship.
Though Lieberman excels at depicting small-town midwesterners, Rader's cosmopolitan doctor is also impressive in Henry's few scenes of self-righteous explosion. Fey and piss-elegant throughout, Rader resists the temptation to camp things up, and the payoff is a stunning intensity when Henry demands to be heard. Sanders's feat, on the other hand, is to give Peter a dignified, genuine masculinity. When his friend Karl chides him for crying in the face of an emasculating tragedy--Karl tells Peter point-blank to be a man--Sanders looks up without flinching and says, "I am a man."
The real tragedy of the situation is that the quiet, upright Peters of the world are unlikely to step outside their comfort zones--to identify themselves as gay. Conversely America's outspoken, sometimes arrogant Henrys play into every conservative stereotype of liberal gays. But Lieberman never shortchanges any of her characters, and in fact seems to be saying a silent prayer that small-town folks continue to exist quietly--with one slight modification. Red country would be perfect with just a little bit of city jazz, she seems to say. If only we all could be kind of blue.
When: Through 12/19: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 5 PM. No show Thu 11/25
Where: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago
Price: $7.50-$15, industry nights Thu
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian Allen Hill.