Fuzz Roark, director of "Tea and Sympathy" at the Spotlighters Theatre, commented before curtain that Robert Anderson's play caused "a bit of scandal" when it opened on Broadway in 1953. Given the mores of the post-WWII "Leave it to Beaver" society, it stands to reason-homosexuality was hardly fodder for dinner table conversation at that time.
Today, however, homosexuality is "out of the closet" - more states are passing laws permitting same sex marriages, "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" has now been removed, opening the way for gays in the military...attitudes are far more open and understanding about sexual expression, at least compared to the Eisenhower Era.
Does this mean that Anderson's exploration of sexual prejudices might seem a bit trite or dated to today's "Glee"-ified modern audiences?
No. With our news filled with stories of teens taking their own lives due to bullying, whether it be face-to-face or the cyber variety, Anderson's work is as prescient as ever. As Roark further noted, "It's a play that raises questions, makes people uncomfortable, it's great theater." And indeed, this performance at the Spotlighters was just that.
As per usual, the Spotlighters staff make the most of their minimum space, creating a living room, a hallway, a foyer and student quarters-the home of schoolmaster Bill Reynolds (Todd Krickler) and his poetry-loving, former actress wife, Laura (Karina Ferry).
For the eight boys who live in the Reynolds' home while at the unnamed New England boarding school, Laura is "an interested bystander" who provides them "a little tea and sympathy" as they weather the squalls of adolescence. Unfortunately for young Tom (Justin Johnson), he faces no mere thunderstorm but a flat-out hurricane.
When Tom is discovered on the beach swimming with an instructor, Mr. Harris (Jose Teneza), the rumors fly; Mr. Harris is fired and Tom's character (i.e. sexuality) is called into question. Laura supports him, given Tom's absentee father (Bob Ahrens) who has surrendered the job of making his son "a man" to the uber-athletic, ever-mountain-climbing Bill.
It's a job Bill hardly relishes; he calls Tom an "off horse" and makes off-comments about Tom's walk, his posture, his interest in theater, finally concluding "a man knows a queer when he sees one." Tom believes Bill "hates him," and therein lies the rub. As Laura later divines, Bill's anger comes from seeing the very "sensitivity" that makes Tom an outcast, in himself.
Johnson is extremely well cast as the folk-song-singing, crew-cut-hating Tom. Johnson's gangly features, staccato movements, head almost always bowed, stand in stark contrast to his roommate, soon-to-be-captain-of-the-baseball-team Al Thompson (Dennis Binseel). Like Bill, Al is an athlete, the stereotypical prototypical "manly man," but unlike Bill, harbors no distaste toward Tom, but tries to help him "fit in" by giving him "walking lessons."
Ultimately, to end the vicious cycle of rumors, Tom takes steps to prove his manhood. What occurs is at the crux of the play-how does one define "being a man"? Is it the ability to have sex with a woman, no matter what your feelings may be? Or is it something much more complex, bound to courage, honor, and most importantly, love?
As Laura declares, being a man is "much more than swagger and sway and mountain climbing...It's something in fact that only a woman can really know." How Laura expresses that knowledge in the play's final scene with Tom likely was another reason this play raised more than a few eyebrows with 1950s audiences.
"Tea and Sympathy" is a 2 ½ hour production, but is smartly done, seeming to fly by. While there were a few occasional "muffs" of lines, likely due to opening night jitters, the play was well staged, from the "boys" in their striped school ties (Kevin D. Baker, Shawn Naar) to Laura's friend Lilly (Lisa Libowitz)'s red chiffon dance dress.
"Tea and Sympathy" continues its run at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street in downtown Baltimore, now through Nov 6th, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. A "Talk Back" with the play's cast and director will be held on Sunday, Oct. 16th following the performance. There will be a "Ten Spot Thursday," $10 ticket price, on Thursday, Nov. 3rd at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20; $18 for seniors and $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.