Dallas — Nestled among the events scheduled for Dallas Pride is Theatre Three’s production of The Sum of Us by David Stevens as the 2016-2017 season opener for Theatre Too! It is a sweet story of the struggles of four people to find their way forward through loves, anticipations and losses.
By the time The Sum of Us opened off-Broadway in 1990 (two years prior to its Australian staging), Stevens was well-established as a writer for television and film. In the American market, he was best known for his highly successful film, Breaker Morant, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Sum of Us was adapted to film in 1994 featuring a then young and relatively unknown Russell Crowe in the cast.
Film is wonderful, important and quite often a source of delight. But some works are more powerful onstage, and this is one of them. Director Mark C. Guerra and his dynamic cast demonstrate the force of theatrical intimacy that cannot be duplicated in any other medium. The Sum of Us was successful, receiving the Outstanding Broadway Play award in 1990-91 from the Outer Critics Circle. It is the third in A Currency Trilogy, following The Inn at the Beginning of the World and The Beast and the Beauty.
We enter our Australian characters’ lives during the late 1980s. Harry Mitchell (Randy Pearlman) lost his wife when son Jeff (Blake Lee) was still a boy. Memories of her are everywhere in the house where Harry and Jeff still live together. Harry and his wife always knew that Jeff was, as his dad describes it, “cheery.” Harry nurtured an open and loving relationship with his son that extended to welcoming Jeff’s boyfriends to stay overnight. Father and son are each desirous of a long-term relationship. Jeff hopes it will happen with Greg (Michael Brannian), and Harry meets Joyce (Lindsay Hayward) through a dating agency. Greg has not come out to his parents because he knows his father will reject him. Joyce is distrustful of the unknown but tentatively hopeful about a possible future with Harry. Thus we have the intersections of four damaged people in search of something lasting.
The story is told through the Harry and Jeff, with a tilt toward Harry’s point of view. Sifted into Harry’s view of the world is his childhood memory of his grandmother and Mary, invisible characters. Their love had seemed so natural to him that later as a parent, he was not at odds with his son’s ‘cheeriness’. But for all of Harry’s openness he is only able to imagine Jeff’s future through the things he cannot have such as marriage and children, rather than the things he can have. Some argue that this play lacks the degree of relevance it had in 1990 because of recent social changes, but for others these hopes, conflicts and concerns persist. Improvement is not erasure.
The Sum of Us is referential to Stevens’ life, stopping short of being autobiographical. The interaction between the characters plays out through dialogue, but Harry and Jeff each share their memories and fears are directly with the audience, ignoring the fourth wall. Two of those monologues rise above the rest.
First is the-woman-on-the-train monologue which Stevens wrote first because it was one of his most vivid memories. It follows a scene with Greg that leaves Jeff feeling deep disappointment. Jeff is recalling a train ride and his observations of a woman visibly melancholic and filled with despair. Lee takes his time and crafts this moment beautifully, showing more vulnerability with this monologue than during any of the earlier exchanges in the first act. His sadness is palpable as he connected with the woman’s words, “Oh, the agonizing pain of it all.” This monologue was the most important to the playwright.
The second occurs toward the end of the play. Harry is having an epiphany of sorts, finally understanding that love between two people who are gay is every bit as profound as love between two people that are not. Pearlman aces this, neither pushing nor pulling as he illuminates the lives of Gran and Mary.
The women in this play are important but they are present as memories filtered through maleness, except for Joyce. She does not appear until deep into the play, staying for a short time. Her character is the most unresolved but she packs a punch. There are a couple of ways to play this character, each giving Joyce and the rest of the story a different feel. Hayward’s rendering offers a stark, cutting contrast with the gentler female silhouettes offered by the male characters. It results in what might be the most recognizable profile of all the other characters.
Brannian plays Greg with an attractive hesitancy, which makes one want to know more about him. We can see the mix of longing, fear, and reticence.
This is not a story that neatly stitches all of the ripped seams of these characters’ lives together as an ending. It’s just life with its chuckles and winces and occasionally, a nice surprise.