For starters, I can’t remember the last play that inspired so much warm laughter in an audience, as I experienced during Great American History Theatre’s premiere of Farm Boys (running through May 28th).
The hit of the 2004 Raw Stages series draws from Will Fellows’ book about 37 Gay men who grew up in the rural Midwest, coming of age between the early 1930s through the 1980s. Dean Gray was one of the 75 gay men Fellows interviewed and, with Amy Fox, the two playwrights created five totally engaging composite characters.
“There’s an incredible divide between men who came of age before the 1970s and those who came of age after,” says director. John Miller-Stephany, who’s also Associate Artistic Director at the Guthrie. “Earlier in the century, the pressures to conform meant many gay men married–unhappily. They were put in psychiatric care. Some attempted suicide. Later in the 20th century, these men had a sense of the larger world outside their rural communities.”
There’s an inevitable comparison between Farm Boys and the film Brokeback Mountain, given their shared theme. But, there’s significant differences. First off, there’s no explicit sexuality and even physical affection is very tame. While being bittersweet, Farm Boys emphasizes the sweet. One leaves smiling not weeping. Urban heterosxual folks with rural/smalltown roots might be most surprised by some parallels in their own lives.
Set in the 1980s (with flashbacks to the 1960s), 38 and living in NYC, John returns to his rural Wisconsin hometown, having inherited a 40-acre farm from his first lover, Lyle . He’s forced to face his past with Lyle’s ex-wife,Lois, and struggles with what kind of future (city or farm?) with his partner, Kim, makes the trip with him.
Matt Guidry is a veteran TC actor, (including Guthrie, Frank, Pillsbury House) and founding member and co-Artistic Director of The Burning House Group. He’s amaziing adept at switching back and forth between the adult John’s thorny challenge to figure out where he belongs and the brash 18-year-old who escaped his short-tempered father into the arms of divorced 35-year-old farmer, Lyle. John is (to use gay personal ads lingo) “straight-acting-and-appearing”, but, Guidry expresses John’s undercurrent of uprootedness perfectly.
Losing connection to the land can haunt anyone who migrates to the city, but, for gay men, it’s a forced exile.
“They have to leave to find social acceptance. Rural communities tend to have a culture that’s not accepting of diversity. Although they find community and can be out of the closet in cities, these men may also find cities are not totally fulfilling either,” Miller-Stephany emphasized. “They have such an affinity for family, for the land–however, that culture doesn’t allow them to be open about who they are.”
Phil L. Callen, a History Theatre veteran, poignantly expresses the results of rural/small town repression in Lyle. Painfully aware of the price social rejection exacts, Lyle aches with a lonely tenderness longing to express itself. John’s youthful recklessness unleashes his cautious heart, yet, Lyle maintains responsiblity towards the younger man. It’s a complicated emotional dance, common to queer people’s first love.
Played by Joe Leary (another veteran with eclectic and experiemental credits)John’s current lover, Kim, native New Yorker and dance choreographer, is Lyle’s polar opposite. He’s the kind of gay man straight women everywhere will reconzie as the perfect best friend. Kim has the funniest lines and Leary has perfect comic timing.
Where Brokeback Mountain barely glimpsed the men’s wives, Farm Boys remedies that omission beautifully with Lyle’s ex-wife, Lois. Muriel J. Bonertz makes Lois a woman who sadly, but squarely faced losing Lyle with an open-heartedness that defines her character. She’s delightfully ‘pure Minnesota’, standing on equal footing with the men.
Finally, University of Minnesota/BFA Guthrie Theatre Actor Training Program junior, Harlan Chambers has a smaller, but, significant role. as Keith, a young man who’s plans for Theological College are shaken by meeting John and Kim.
Mathew J. LeFebvre’s set is part barn, front porch and a marvelous conception of what Heaven is like. Mathew Reinhet’s magical lighting effects and C. Andrew Mayer’s sound mixes of blues, country and gay disco anthems delightfully add atmosphere.
John faces the Corporate Agriculture swallowing up family farms, displacing many rural people into cities and suburbs. Love, lost and found, is universal. As Miller-Stephany observes, “One theme of the play is:what constitutes home?”, something all of us hope to have.
Farm Boys is the ideal reply to those pushing for a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It’s pure entertainment that leaves you feeling bigotry ultimately doesn’t stand a chance against love.
$22-$32 Through May 28, Thur. 7:30, Fri./Sat. 8pm, Sun. 2pm/7pm, Great American History Theatre, 30th East 10th Street, St. Paul (651)292-4323 www.historytheatre.com