Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing at Athenaeum TheatreWritten by Jonathan Harvey

Directed by John Nasca

At Athenaeum Theatre

“We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,”

—Walt Whitman

It’s been twenty years since Jonathan Harvey premiered  this play-turned-beloved-movie and fifteen years since it debuted this side of the pond in Chicago. So much has happened in that time. Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and most notably just today as I write this review, a President is listing the fight for gay rights and Stonewall in his inauguration address. What a difference a couple decades can make. Presented as the second of the three in a series by Pride Films and Plays, Beautiful Thing is a sweetly drawn study of coming of age in a hostile environment that is sadly still too common despite all the progress made. Though it’s narratively lacking in surprises, the production is buoyed by some stellar performances by its two young leads and complemented by equally fine turns by a supporting cast of Brit-styled eccentrics.

In a working class post-war council estate (such a grandiose term for egg crate housing!), sixteen-year-old Jaime (the brilliant and relatively new-to-the-Chicago-scene Robert Hilliard) lives with his single mum Sandra (Michelle McKenzie-Voigt). Despite being closeted, his avoidance of sports and general sensitivity is enough to make him a target for bullying. Surrounded by a loosely-knit community bonded by thin walls, mild antagonism, and a shared balcony, Jaimie looks longingly at classmate and neighbor Ste (short for “Steven,” Charlie Wein). On the surface the have little in common, but beneath those differences lies a shared present of a single parent home and abuse—Jaimie from without, and Ste from his alcoholic father. When Sandra takes pity on Ste after a particularly bad night, she offers him space next to Jamie in bed. A delicate dance of unspoken needs commences, so typical of teenage affection taking those first shaky steps into the light. As their bond intensifies, they step out of their comfort zones and reluctantly invite the colorful characters around them to join in. There’s the Mama Cass-loving school dropout Leah (the very fresh Kiah McKirnan) and Sandra’s pragmatic neo-hippie boyfriend Tony (Patrick Rybarczyk) provide some levity and gentle insight from the outside in this strange little “family” that struggles to blossom as much as that pathetic little basket of flowers that hangs outside Sandra’s door.

(L to r) Patrick Rybarczyk, Michelle McKenzie-Voigt, Kiah McKirnan, Charlie Wein, and Robert Hilliard - Beautiful Thing

Such a work of very dry British humor mingled with equally —and often at the exact same time as—pathos requires a bedrock cast, and this one does not disappoint. McKenzie-Voigt rides a fine line to avoid becoming a caricature, creating instead a relatable, confused, oft harried single mother coping with a son she doesn’t understand and dreams that only seem deferred. Wein makes his Chicago debut with fine style, generating an understated and sweet chemistry with Jaimie that doesn’t ring false. Ultimately it all turns on Jamie, and Hilliard rises marvellously to the occasion with a nuanced and affecting portrait playing a man almost 10 years younger than his own age. That’s a relief, as these are fairly one-dimensional teens on paper that would be irritating if not handled correctly. Often I have noted that younger performers are vastly outperformed by any more experienced castmates in mixed-age stagings, but director John Nasca has fine tuned each character to ensure that any possible glaring inequity is not evident here.

Charlie Wein (left) as Ste and Robert Hilliard as Jamie in PFP's Beautiful Thing at the Athenaeum

Bullying still being what it is and having reached a more heightened state of awareness in the last decade from some high-profile cases, Beautiful Thing is a timely reminder of the battles still yet to be fought for acceptance. If only there had been an It Gets Better series for all those young people in days gone by to remind them that no matter what it seems, teenagerdom and its challenges do pass away. Plays and movies of this ilk (Beautiful Thing and the later Get Real), are poignant reminders that we must not forget the difficulties of those younger years even as pain passes into memory, and we have a responsibility to reach back and give them a vision that is beyond what they can imagine.

Despite some muddled plot turns in the final third that don’t seem to mesh with what came before, Beautiful Thing is saved by its depth of love for its characters and touching end moments. The surprises arise not from the stories but from the characters as they respond to the couple at the center. Essentially a coming out fable with a heartfelt moral, it’s the kind of show we can hope becomes an anachronism for future generations who will look on in puzzlement at the concept that parents could betray their children, or that being different was cause for malice, or that love was anything but a cause for celebration.

Recommended.

Review by Clint May

Date Reviewed: January 19, 2013

For more info checkout the Beautiful Thing page on www.pridefilmsandplays.com

At Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, IL 60657, call 773.935.6875, or visit www.athenaeumtheatre.org , tickets $15-25, Thursdays thru Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm, running time is 2 hours with 1 intermission, through February 17.