Around the moment of Chicago's gay-pride parade and festival in 2011, About Face Theatre enjoyed a big hit with Phillip Dawkins' "The Homosexuals," a deftly observed look at several generations of gay Chicagoans. Two years on, About Face has turned to a richly complex and beautifully wrought British play, Alexi Kaye Campbell's "The Pride," to explore this moment of seismic social change. As the acting in Bonnie Metzgar's unstinting production makes clear, About Face does its best work at pride time.
When you think about it, there are three main ways that a movie, play or TV show can contrast life in, say, 1958 and 2008, which is Campbell's desire here. One way, employed by Dawkins (and, in other plays, such writers as Terrence McNally) is to stick representatives of those generations in a room together and have them reminisce and interact. Another — think "Mad Men" — is to simply present that bygone era with a touch of carefully honed self-awareness in the writing, and let the audience make the comparison. The third, which is structurally the most challenging, is to move back and forth between those contrasting eras.
That's what Campbell does in a play that was seen in New York in 2010 under Joe Mantello's direction but is only now premiering in Chicago in the Richard Christiansen Theatre at the Biograph. In the initial 1958 scene, we meet Philip (John Francisco), a real-estate broker, who is married to Sylvia (Jessie Fisher), an actress who has become an illustrator of children's books.
Sylvia brings to the house one of her collaborators, Oliver (Patrick Andrews), and then Philip and Oliver begin one of those probing, nervous, metaphor-laden dances common at that time, as each tries to figure out whether the other shares the same urges and longings, even as neither wants to risk an explicit ask. How Sylvia feels remains ambiguous. Did she bring the men together deliberately?
Fast-forward to 2008 with another Philip, Oliver and Sylvia, or maybe these are the same characters in another moment. Philip has just left Oliver, a gay man struggling with fidelity, and the devastated Oliver is swimming in a sea of sexual emptiness. Sylvia is his understanding pal, spending her time navigating a gay man's sex life: not so differently perhaps, than from her 1958 doppelganger.
On the surface, the lives of these characters could not be more different in 2008 than in 1958: Fear and oppression have turned into pride and some approximation of liberation. But Campbell is very interested in how the ghosts of the past always affect the future.
After all, the very park in which furtive 1950s encounters took place between men living outwardly heterosexual lives is the same location where the 2008 pride parade is staged. And, most interesting of all, there is still a triangular structure at work here, with a woman involved.
In many plays about the changing gay-male identity, women don't figure much, or appear as shrewish and angry. Here, Campbell draws a poignant portrait of what it must have been like to have been married to a closeted gay man in 1958, whose self-actualization, however desirable for the woman who truly loves him, would bring about only scandal, loneliness and misery for the wife.
Better than in any dramatic work I've seen, Campbell makes the case for the women who spent their nights (and best years) lying next to men living a lie. Fisher's performance — which feels authentically British and is layered with a good deal of pain, humor and complexity — is a good part of why Sylvia is so moving. But none of that would matter if Andrews and Francisco, who play Oliver and Philip respectively, were not working at such a high level.
The piece is a notable challenge for actors, given that Oliver goes from the upper hand in 1958 to a neurotic mess in 2008, and that Phillip makes the exact reverse of that journey. Watching that change in these two actors is positively invigorating: Francisco makes you marvel at how new freedoms can allow once-hidden talent to prosper; Andrews seems to devolve into an emotional puddle before your eyes.
With the help of the excellent Benjamin Sprunger, who plays one of Oliver's tricks in 2008 and Philip's aversion-therapy shrink in 1958 (a different kind of trick, you might say), and the skilled designer William Boles, Metzgar catches the melancholy present in the writing and also the visual link between past and present, linked by the various identities we must wear, sometimes of our choosing, sometimes not at all.
There's no show to better honor pride week in Chicago, even if this won't feel so much a celebration as a potent revelation of how change can, at once, be both profound and knotted to the old places from whence it came. I kept thinking about how much the world has changed since 2008; even the modern characters in this play seem to inhabit the past. Already, the prideful present has shifted again.
When: Through July 27
Where: Richard Christiansen Theatre at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 mins.
Tickets: $30 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org