Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Michael Brosilow
“One can never be 100% themselves unless they embrace themselves.”
Raven Theatre Artistic Director Cody Estle was speaking about his latest play, an homage to two American theatre icons, Tennesse Williams and William Inge, both of whom had deep secrets that they struggled to embrace. The Gentleman Caller, by Philip Dawkins (of Charm and Le Switch, among several others), is the fictional story of a very real encounter the two men had in 1944, just as Williams’ The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago. During the two hours plus of the play, Dawkins deals with the need to embrace who we are, the concept of visibility, and the nature of creating art itself.
Told as a memory play a la Menagerie (whose original title Dawkins has co-opted for his own play), the play shows us two soon-to-be-famous playwrights on the verge of becoming known. Inge, who was working for a St. Louis newspaper as a critic at the time, did indeed have an occasion to meet with Williams, who encouraged him to act upon his own desire to become a playwright. Nothing more is known about that meeting, but Dawkins, using biographical information about each character, posits that there may have been more than merely talking going on.
“Inge never did embrace the idea that he was a homosexual but he did embrace the idea that he was a playwright,” Estle said. “Sure it’s always easier to be who you are behind closed doors and keep that in but you’ll never know your full capacity unless you go there and try.” Dawkins’ Inge, played with tightly wound intensity by Curtis Edward Jackson, tries to seduce Williams but is quickly ashamed of his actions. He is so constrained by his view of what is proper that he can hardly even acknowledge what he has just done. Jackson gives us a meticulous, button-down Inge (the contrasts with Rudy Galvan’s Williams made apparent by Melissa Ng’s great costuming) who is too frightened of what others may think to give in to his carnal desires. At one point, he goes into a litany of ugly adjectives that he says describe himself and homosexuals in general, proving he has spent considerable time thinking of this despite his self-denial, but though he clearly wants to, he is incapable of following through with his emotions.
It is Galvan’s Williams who decides to try to get Inge to “go there and try.” He is attracted at first by the physical presence of Inge, a good looking young man, and then by his talent. Williams has come to grips with his own nature, at least behind closed doors. In many ways it is the opposite of Inge: Galvan’s Williams is hot, open, sloppy, drunk, warm, extremely sexual, and (apparently) fearless. He is who he is, and he desires that Inge become a part of his life. Both characters drink a lot, but in Inge’s case it is to try to deny what he is feeling while for Williams it is to loosen up to enjoy the moment, yet another in a series of contrasting aspects of the two characters.
The play begins with Galvan as Williams standing outside of the scene a la Tom Wingfield in Menagerie, commenting openly about the fact that what we will be seeing is, in fact, a play. His monologue, and indeed his dialogue throughout, is peppered with humor and knowing winks to the audience. The notion of a memory play is enhanced by Jeffrey Kmiec’s set, which is unfinished around the edges of the proscenium as well as on the interior walls, emphasizing the unclear edges of memory even while the main room is clear and sharp in detail. (Galvan does speak of it as incomplete as well, urging the audience to use its imagination to make the furnishings grander, for instance.) Estle spoke of the set as being suggestive of a Hollywood soundstage, an artificial creation designed to create a TV-like appearance. “It’s a box. They talk about being inside of a box, being watched, a little light inside of a television.” (This effect is enhanced by Michelle E. Benda’s lighting design, which on several occasions “zooms in” on one or the other of the men.) There are several scenes and discussions of this notion, the most overt being one moment in which the two men peer through binoculars at the lesbian couple across the way. As the women make love, Jackson as Inge narrates in great detail while Galvan as Williams tries to turn the sexual energy around and seduce his guest, who is extremely disturbed by the kind of visibility he had just been celebrating. In truth, it seems, he has no real problem with homosexuality in general, just with his own.
In addition to the highly charged sexual moments, there is a lot of discussion about the nature of art, as befits a play about playwrights. Estle feels that the play is about the toll the arts take on the lives of artists. There is much talk about critics and the emotional hold they have over artists—Williams, awaiting his first notices for Menagerie, refers to them as “executioners”—and plenty as well about the difficulty of writing. (Williams chides himself for having been stuck on how to write the play that will become A Streetcar Named Desire for months; all he seems able to create is Blanche sitting around.) When Inge lets him know that he does, in fact, want to be a playwright, Williams responds by telling him that he’ll be making pleasure into work. He even goes so far as to say he wishes he could stop writing himself (but doing so would be to deny his own soul).
Estle clearly worked hard with these actors on the specificity of what they are doing. There isn’t a wasted inflection, step, or gesture anywhere in the play. Galvan is an appealing, appalling Williams, far more flamboyant in his sexuality and sharp in his tongue than one might imagine for the era, but that is the point. Jackson couldn’t contrast more as the nervous Inge, unable to act on either his gay desires or his artistic ones due to fear. “There’s no room for any unclear intention,” Estle commented, and his actors are committed to that ideal. Galvan never misses a chance to make a sly comment either to Inge or to the audience, and each one is a zinger. No matter which of the characters is the “gentleman caller”—and they take turns at it: in Act One it is Williams visiting Inge and in Act Two it is the other way around—it is Williams that is the provocateur, practically daring the deeply internalized Inge to come out into the light.
The Gentleman Caller is a beautiful piece of work. Its examination of two of America’s most lyrical playwrights is itself poetic and artful; one can hear echoes of both real men’s plays in the words the characters speak. Knowing the playwrights does help, but it isn’t by any means necessary; Dawkins provides all of the needed background within the script. But he doesn’t allow the play to become bogged down by the elegance of its lines; rather, he couches everything in (often dark) humor as he allows his creations to find each other or just miss the chance. Don’t miss the chance to see this play, which is already more than half sold out for its already-extended run. It’s a remarkable work about remarkable classic playwrights from a pretty remarkable Chicago playwright. To create my own list of adjectives, it is lovely, bawdy, raw, very funny, pensive, outrageous, emotional, powerful, and did I mention funny? But most of all it is real. On its stage designed for artifice, this play presents what Marianne Moore called “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” We get to experience the toads in all of their rawness, but Dawkins imagines the garden where they can be together among the flowers. Even knowing it can’t last, it is a wonderful thing to watch.