So you bring your date home, someone you really fancy, and things are going swimmingly. The compliments and drinks are flowing, Sade is playing, the lights are low - and then your dad comes into the living room, curious to meet your date, and settles down on the couch between you. Mortifying, right? Imagine how much worse it is when you're queer, and your date doesn't have nearly the same kind of loving, open relationship with his family that you do with yours.
That's the premise of David Stevens' The Sum of Us, a sweet, earnest, hanky-wrecker of a play about family, society, and how we feel about ourselves. Set in a Melbourne suburb, it can be a little obvious, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
The Celluloid Closet, a 1995 documentary based on Vito Russo's book of the same name, reminds us that positive (or indeed neutral) portrayals of gays and lesbians were few and far between for decades. Somehow, the makers of Closet just missed the 1994 movie version of Sum, starring the then-largely-unknown Russell Crowe as a perfectly well-adjusted young gay man. Stevens wrote the stage play in 1990, and what was exciting when it came out was that it showed a side of gay life a lot of people hadn't seen dramatized. Nobody had AIDS. Nobody committed suicide - whether slowly through alcohol or quickly with a rope. What it showed instead was an admirable relationship between a gay man and his lovingly intrusive widowed father as both searched for new mates with varying degrees of success.
The play is full of little details of their home life - Jeff having to borrow clean socks from his dad on date nights, Harry getting tired of his son's cooking, the way nobody will come out and say that Harry's decorating sense sucks. Jeff and Harry talk to each other and the people they're dating (shy Greg and the rather thankless Joyce, who mostly seems to exist as the play's face of insensitivity). But mostly they talk to the audience, in long asides that usually go unheard by anyone else.
Peter Cieply plays the dad about whom his son can say, "There's such a thing as being too well adjusted, you know." While Harry has done everything to educate himself on homosexuality (well, almost everything) and be okay with Jeff's orientation, he still doesn't honestly believe it's possible for two men or two women to match the relationship that he had with his wife - especially the babymaking bit. But he really loves his son, dirty socks and all, and Cieply plays that gently, with an engagingly quiet openness. Ryan Tasker (Jeff) was Chess in TheatreQ's last show, Walking the Dead; while he plays a similar character here - nice enough, but by his own admission not too exciting - he also isn't nearly as skittish, and knows how to put the moves on a boy. Jeff catches the frustration of having a father so invested in his love life that the boys get scared off.
More than a decade after it was first staged, you might think Sum would be a relic, what with Transamerica, Capote, and Brokeback Mountain all Oscar noms and an explosion of gay-themed work onstage. But the moment Jeff and his date began making out in TheatreQ's production of Sum at the Dean Lesher, the man next to me walked out. I heard what sounded like a faint "yuck" from an adult audience member. And realized that besides being a rather ordinary if moving story, the work still has the power to shock - even if what it says about loneliness and the quest for love is universal and in no way limited to gay folk or straight.
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