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Tea and Sympathy Written 60 Years Ago, Still Has Power

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The set-up:

Tea and Sympathy, by Robert Anderson, opened on Broadway in 1953 and ran for 712 performances, with John Kerr in the role of the prep school student struggling with the perception that he is effeminate. John Kerr passed away this year, I'm sorry to report, at the age of 81, so it's clear that considerable time, 60 years in fact, has passed. In many ways, times have changed, and in some ways they haven't. The London production in 1956 was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, and had to be produced on a semi-private "club membership" basis. Promoting homosexuality was forbidden in Great Britain by a law passed in 1988, though the law was repealed in 2003. Regardless of political context, the great strength of Tea and Sympathy is that it is strong theater, about human beings working their way through challenging choices.

The execution:

Director David Rainey has created an admirable sense of milieu, and we feel the insular, stifling closed-world of a prep school. And he has marshaled his cast, most of it, into a smooth ensemble, each maintaining individual identity while blending into the mosaic of the play. The pace is brisk, and the entire production provides the sense that a keen intelligence has illuminated the proceedings onstage.

This is a well-crafted play - this is usually a way of indicating that the plot's duct tape is showing, but that is not the case here. There are a number of scenes, but each serves its purpose with a refreshing economy of dialogue, and the events move ahead with precision and a sense of inevitability. Anderson is a remarkably-gifted playwright, and even the necessary exposition is handled adroitly.

Joanna Hubbard portrays Laura Reynolds, married to Bill Reynolds (Steve Bullitt), the master of a residential facility for students - Bill has aspirations to be dean someday. Laura has a special fondness for a "loner" student, Tom Lee (Jacob Perkel), perceived by classmates as a "fairy" and a "queer", to use the terms employed in the play. Bullitt is excellent, and creates a plausible and complex character. Jim Salners nails the role of Herbert Lee, Tom's father, in a totally convincing portrayal of a man determined that his son meet his standards of manhood. Jonathan Downey plays Al, the student sharing a residential suite with Tom, and is subtle and persuasive in a difficult role, capturing with warmth the conflict between self-interest and a friendship that may not be advantageous.

The excellent Cameron Cooper plays David Harris, a faculty member discharged after behavior viewed with suspicion, and can add another laurel to his lengthening credits, though the role is brief. As hazing students, David Clayborn, Jeffrey Fato and Ben Scanlon are good, and function well as part of the ensemble. Elizabeth Black brings her eloquent beauty to the perhaps unnecessary role of Lilly Sears, who is present primarily to allow exposition. Lilly is played as brittle, cynical and vain, and these choices create a vivid character, but fit less well with the academic milieu.

The protagonists, of course, are Tom and Laura, and I have delayed commenting on their performances because they are both good, but not quite good enough. Perkel finds the angst of Tom, and his unhappiness, but the role requires an inner light as well, so that we sense that a Dionysian spirit is being smothered. The role of Laura can be a glamorous one - she was played by Deborah Kerr on Broadway and in the 1956 film, Joan Fontaine took over when Kerr left the Broadway production, and Ingrid Bergman did the role in Paris. Hubbard appears too young to play Laura, and she conveys a determined sincerity, but without the expected layer of charm. Both Perkel and Hubbard need a lot more variety in their performances, and director Rainey must take his share of responsibility for not evoking it. But the play has a driving force and it is fueled by the power of truth, and is not dependent on any individual performance.

The set by Rachel Smith is wonderful, and director Rainey has made imaginative use of this particular venue. The unnecessary pantomime of opening and closing an invisible door, however, rapidly becomes tedious and distracting, yanking us time and again away from the world of academia into what seems like a beginner's acting class.

The verdict:

An excellent play, deeply moving and emotionally rewarding, wears its age well, and still shines, aided by a strong ensemble cast. See it, it's wonderful.

Tea and Sympathy continues through August 18, from the Back Porch Players, at Main Street Theater - Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. For information or ticketing, call 713-524-6706 or contact www.thebackporchplayers.com.

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