American Gothic

The gorgeous landscape of rural North Carolina, with its hidden back roads, lost graveyards and abandoned plantations, feels haunted. Its gothic setting seems fraught with danger. Back in the 1970s, it was probably the last place a teenage gay boy needed to be. It is this terrible paradox -- that brutality can reside in such lush beauty -- that makes Eric Rosen's Dream Boy so gripping. Based on the acclaimed novel by Jim Grimsley, this lyrical play about a Southern boy's grim coming of age sneaks up on you with its tender heartbreak and gut-punch violence.

There's nothing in the early moments of the production at Stargaze Theatre (formerly Bienvenue) that hints at the loveliness hidden in this show. It begins in clumsy fits and starts. Rosen has built an unnecessary narrator into the play and cut the opening scenes into silly television-sized bites. And director Christian DeVries has chosen a cast that is amateurish at best. But by the end of the first act none of this matters. The power of the story takes over the building; the actors, even the air, seem to vibrate with its dark, devastating mysteries.

From the opening we know there is something a little bit off about Nathan (played by an actor named only as Jonathan in the program). As the new boy in town, he walks about with downcast eyes and keeps to himself. He is dark, brooding, bookish and younger than the other boys because he skipped a grade. The only thing he has in common with the rest of the folks in Potter's Lake is that he has to spend his Sunday mornings in a sanctimonious church where hellfire and damnation are the order of the day.

Soon enough he meets Roy (Jeffrey Seals) -- tall, blond and the most popular boy in school. Sparks fly. The story is so clear that it's hard to understand why Rosen felt it necessary to interject a narrator into his script. Saddled with schmaltzy lines like "The sight of him is like a current of cool water," Erik Soliz narrates as well as anyone might in this situation. But he's merely reiterating what is obvious from the action on stage. We know that the boys have the hots for each other by the looks that pass between them.

At some mysterious point it becomes clear that beneath the love story something else is going on. Slump-shouldered Nathan steals about his parents' farmhouse not wanting to watch TV with his whiskey-drinking, "yellow-eyed" daddy (Gene Griesbach). His father certainly seems creepy, sitting around in his white undershirt, quoting biblical passages. Nathan's blank-faced mother (Janice Dickard) professes to love her son, always worrying whether he has eaten. But when Nathan asks his mother if his father is going to "bother" him again, she has little to say. The potential violence covered over by the quiet in these scenes is unnerving.

These elements turn the narrative into something of a ghost story, and the play firmly hooks its audience by the midway point. Something bad is going to happen; we just don't know what yet.

In fact, ghosts permeate the entire fabric of this tale of sexual awakening. Every time Nathan sneaks off with Roy, they end up in a forgotten graveyard or an ancient burial ground. That Nathan comes of age while hiding in these landscapes of death underscores a heartbreaking irony in this story. But the full gothic power of these images doesn't become clear until the end.

One of the ways DeVries builds tension is by taking full advantage of all the erotic possibilities in the play. Dark and dangerous, sex in this backwoods world is full of menace and fear. Never one to shy away from nudity (Bienvenue ran Naked Boys Singing for months), DeVries has the young men dropping their trousers and doing the do in all their young and naked glory. The nudity actually makes this play stronger. It makes the men more beautiful, vulnerable and terrifying all at once. These electric moments have a complex and disturbing eroticism that is hard to capture in live theater.

The performers, inexperienced as they are, eventually do well by this story. Seals's Roy, who is confused at best and brutal at worst, is especially strong. And Griesbach's turn as Nathan's horrifying father is deeply disturbing. Technically, the production is clever and beautiful. The starry-night backdrop evokes the sadness to come. Beds and campfires are pulled out of hidden places, and a river made of light rolls under the boys' feet at one point. The lonely music also helps develop the melancholy feel of the production.

Surprising and deeply moving, Dream Boy is one of the strongest "gay-themed" shows to come to Houston in recent memory. But the play rises above the constraints of any work pitched to a single audience and becomes about the human condition.

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Lee Williams