By Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
Starring Patrick Andrews, John Francisco, Benjamin Sprunger & Jessie Fisher
Presented by About Face Theatre
Playing at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater
Riveting performances stand the test of time in this bold new vision of GLBT history…
Perhaps as early as this Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down two watershed decisions. The first is on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the second on Proposition 8 which bans gay marriage in California. Moreover, a recent CNN/ORC International survey revealed that nationwide support for gay marriage has peaked at over half for the first time in history, with near unanimous support coming from individuals under the age of 30. And three states legalized gay marriage in May of this year alone.
Hence the uncanny sensation that comes with a play like Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, being presented by About Face at Victory Garden’s Richard Christiansen Theater. This ironic and sophisticated drama centers around a relationship struck up between Oliver, a children’s book author, and Philip, whose wife Sylvia illustrates Oliver’s books. Set in England of 1958, Oliver and Philip’s affair is carried out largely in secret, looking longingly ahead with oracular vision to a day when such feelings won’t be oppressed. Scenes revolve around Oliver’s tortured professions of love to Philip, Philip’s fiercely embattled self-denial, and the internal collapse of his marriage to Sylvia.
But Campbell also interweaves a concurrent story of Oliver and Philip’s relationship as it would unfold 50 years later in 2008. Here, in the wake of the very political wins and liberations that characterize our own immediate present, Oliver and Philip’s relationship suffers from something of the opposite problem. For the Oliver of 2008, facing few social pressures to restrain his sexual pursuits, here fails to exercise the self-restraint necessary to enter into a committed relationship with Philip. Taken to sleeping with prostitutes in Nazi SS uniforms and blowing strangers in the park, Oliver has inherited something of the emotional ambivalences that followed in the wake of the sexual revolution. At once exercising the very freedoms Oliver of 1958 only dreamt of, such freedoms invariably fail to live up to the oracular vision once held out for.
And sure, while stories about the repressed homosexuals of yesteryear or about today’s gay men dodging commitment may not, in and of themselves, be revolutionary, it’s the way Campbell structures the play—keeping one historical epoch in a kind of subtle dialogue with the other—that makes it so compelling. The Pride reminds us that buried even within the essential question of civil liberties, there remains still more fundamental questions about how gay men connect to one another. Even as we here in the U.S. seem to teeter on unprecedented political victories for GLBT individuals, The Pride doesn’t let us forget that such hard won personal liberties mean nothing if used only as a pretext for further withdrawal and self-isolation.
Nor, for that matter, can historical change in The Pride be forcibly rushed. In one remarkable scene set in the 1950s, for instance, Oliver’s hopes to instill in Philip his own sense of pride and courage horribly misfire. But like a taught rubber band suddenly released, Philip snaps, pinning a resistant Oliver to the floor and raping him. For because there is nothing in England of 1958 that could socially support their love for one another, sexual freedom in this context becomes little more than a guttural urging. Despite Oliver’s hopes, his and Philip’s historical moment has failed to proffer up more meaningful forms of expression.
And more than suited to capturing the strange emotional ambivalences of The Pride are actors Patrick Andrews and John Francisco as Oliver and Philip. Andrews’s wildly frenetic take on Oliver is a genuinely felt performance throughout. Even when playing 2008 Oliver—with all his easily loathsome self-involvement—Andrews moves us with Oliver’s clear sense of pathetic helplessness. Genuinely wanting to be better but not having the courage to do so, Andrews makes Oliver to us somehow imminently sympathetic. And John Francisco’s Philip of 1958 is meticulously observed, perfectly capturing the character’s restrained gestures, his anxiously clipped speech, and the guardedness of his prejudices.
And as Sylvia—Philips wife in 1958 and Oliver’s BFF in 2008—Jessie Fisher gives a performance as stunningly authentic as her male costars, generating considerable sympathy for women who become inextricably entangled (for better or worse) in sex lives that aren’t their own. The scene, for example, where Sylvia confronts her husband Philip about his strange prejudice toward gay men is pitch-perfect, with Fisher always pushing her character just to the edge without lapsing into melodrama. And Benjamin Sprunger, playing a prostitute, a pandering editor, and a dispassionate physician, displays an impressive range and strong comedic timing
Thus Alexi Kaye Campbell’s 2008 play The Pride—which premiered originally at the Royal Court Theatre, winning for itself the prestigious Olivier Award—promises to be one of the more forward-thinking new plays to analyze the nature of gay identity in the ‘post-liberated’ era. Rather than being simply content with rehashing history, The Pride at times gives the strange sensation of even shaping it, always from the vantage point of a future only now appearing imminently on the horizon.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Thursday, June 13th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
The Pride runs until July 28th, 2013. Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater is located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets call (773) 871-3000 or visit www.aboutfacetheatre.com. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/the-pride/6286/.