Irving — The last of the three acts in the epic Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein, Widows and Chidren First!, follows drag entertainer Arnold Beckoff as he navigates a meeting between the family he was born into and the family he has chosen. Faced with justifying his sexuality and other choices to his mother, Arnold’s story is just as relevant in today’s changing social climate as it was when it debuted in the late 1970’s.
For its annual ICT Theatre on the Edge production, Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas has chosen to stage the third part of the trilogy in the tiny Ruddy Seppy Rehearsal Studio, directed by Canright.
The play opens with Arnold in a nervous fit over the impending visit of his overbearing mother. He is already hosting his bisexual best friend and former lover Ed (who has just left his wife), and his 15-year-old gay, runaway son David. Unbeknownst to Mrs. Beckoff, Arnold has decided to adopt David and now must find a way to break the news that her nontraditional son is starting a nontraditional family. Remember, this is set in the 1970s. Torch Song Trilogy won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1983, and ran for three years on Broadway from 1982 to 1985.
As Arnold, Dennis Canright is the driving force of the production. Perfectly overdramatic and sweetly vulnerable in all of the right places, Canright paints a picture of a man who has seen a lot of ugliness in his life and still manages to take care of the people around him. The touching relationship between Arnold and David (played by a cheeky and charming Jonny Lee) is very sweet and one of the most touching aspects of this production.
Canright effortlessly traverses his character’s arc—and it helps to know Arnold’s journey in the previous two acts of the play, and that Canright has played the character before when the entire play was produced in Fort Worth in 1999.
Arnold and his best friend Ed (played by Jonathan McCurry) are at a crossroads in their relationship. The friendly scenes are realistic with easy-going teasing, but there could be more tension between the two during tough conversations.
Mrs. Beckoff (played by Linda Much), is written as a loud, bossy firecracker and Much nails the characterization of a typical overbearing New York City “Ma.” While the attitude is spot-on, the lines at the performance reviewed faltered in some areas, which detracted from interactions between her and the other characters.
This is a play with a powerful message, but it would have more gravity if moments between Arnold and his mother and the conversations between Arnold and Ed were better developed and timing was more polished. Canright’s energy and volume pulls focus from the other characters, but that’s not his fault. They should meet him at his level.
The end result is a touching love story where the main character happens to be gay. Much has changed in the past 30 years for LGBT in this country, as evidenced by this year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality. But the message of Widows and Children First! holds up, even as it’s one part of a bigger story. It easily stands alone as a study of relationships between family and friends.