By Tony Kushner
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Studio Theatre, July 26-October 10, 2015
With a title to rival just about any other longwinded one in playwriting, Tony Kushner’s marathon play is a superbly effective exploration of betrayal and loneliness. And Eda Holmes has given it a magnificent production that is splendidly performed and quite the acme of her directorial career. It is an achievement that propels her into the front rank of Canadian theatre directors. Her production is easily the best at the Shaw Festival this season, and it deserves to be remounted next season. If David Mirvish doesn’t bring it to Toronto, he would be depriving his season subscribers and other theatre fans of one of the most significant and compelling theatrical experiences of a lifetime.
In some ways iHO (the preferred abbreviation for the title) is, of course, reminiscent of the didactic plays of Shaw (who is satirically referenced in the play’s teasingly ambiguous title and in the very opening scene), though with less sparkling “head rush” wit but much more innate human drama. In others ways, it is the type of American theatre that carries virtually anything by Odets, Miller, and Mamet to zones those other playwrights never did or could ever reach. Wide in its concerns and arc, it is not delimited by any narrow or one-track ideology; nor is it pat in its resolution. Rhetorically exuberant, morally and politically complex, and emotionally wrenching, it takes virtually three and a half hours to complete its journey, yet not a single minute seems to be wasted. There are brief times, admittedly, when an audience can feel trapped in a lecture hall about American Socialism and Capitalism because of arcane or academic references, but candour forces me to admit that these sequences are necessary to understanding the back story or context for a family drama about collapsed ideological and personal dreams. These heavy sequences never swamp the deeply affecting nucleus. Kushner is probably the most morally and rhetorically generous of contemporary playwrights, as he has amply demonstrated previously in his masterwork, Angels in America. In iHO he refuses to allow political and moral despair or decay to fester into sheer cliché. Every character has a revealing moment; everyone speaks as if every word matters. And none of the voices is a blur.
Kushner’s wit is provocative, starting with the very title, for who is “the intelligent homosexual”? Is it simply a case of generic generality, or does it refer to a specific character in the story? Or is the title simply a mischievous lure for an inquiring mind, a sort of enticement? There is more than one homosexual in the story, and themes of socialism, capitalism, and theology certainly proliferate, but Kushner isn’t simply a propagandist. He has an absorbing story to tell.
His story expands (over three days in 2007) around the central figure of the widower patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, a 72-year old Italian American Communist, retired longshoreman and union activist, who has summoned his three children to explain why he is selling the family brownstone and wishes to commit suicide. Gus, who hails from a long line of Italian anarchists, proudly displays a bust of Garibaldi, as well as a framed photo of a cousin who was a Congressman, but he is not simply a proponent of revolutionary socialism. Formerly a union activist, he is a classics scholar who translates Horace’s Epistles. Pretending to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, he has expressed an ardent wish to commit suicide because he feels imprisoned in a world where a crucial balance of forces and fixities has been lost. Indeed, he has already made an earlier unsuccessful attempt at suicide, but although he makes his disillusionment sound purely philosophical, the truth is that he is morally guilty for having betrayed his union and members of his own family.
Gus’s three grown children themselves suffer various forms of guilt over their own betrayals of others. Empty (really Maria Theresa) is a nurse turned labour lawyer, who has sporadic sex with her ex-husband, Adam, a real estate lawyer, while her lesbian partner, Maeve (a Doctor of Theology), is pregnant with a baby fathered by Vito, Gus’s younger son, who is a private contractor and married to Korean American Sooze. In other words, as Empty herself puts it, Maeve is about to give birth to Empty’s nephew. As it this were not complicated enough, Gus’s other offspring is 53-year old high school history teacher Pill, who is the same sex partner of Paul, an Afro-American lecturer of Theology in Minnesota. Pill, however, betrays Paul by his sexual infatuation with young, attractive hustler Eli, whom he would love to have as part of a menage-a-trois and to whom he has generously given a substantial amount of money borrowed from Empty. And sitting poker-faced and melancholy through most of the ensuing conflicts is Gus’s sister Clio, former Discalced Carmelite nun, former Maoist, and now a Christian Scientist who has a number of reasons for her sadness.
All the principal characters have minds; some are esoteric. Their dialogue is often widely allusive and packed with intelligence. Unlike the case of Tom Stoppard, Kushner’s characters don’t simply show off or revel in high-wire intellectualism. They respect ideas–even risky ones–and they argue across emotional, ideological, and theological lines. But there is also ample black comedy with edge–a specialty of Kusher–and there are some breathtakingly daring moments of both comedy and drama that Eda Holmes’s artful direction points up without ever blurring the play’s sharp truth-telling. Peter Hartwell’s set design (a brownstone in Brooklyn) is realistic in essentials, and expressionistic in its deployment of painted mobile screens, though I think the geometrical patterns on them is a bit too heavy and distracting. Holmes uses these screens very much in the manner of an old-time camera wipe, sliding them across areas of the stage to reveal or conceal zones of action. Her direction is also filmic in another way: like Robert Altman, she indulges in simultaneous or overlapping scenes of dialogue, enhanced by Louise Guinand’s lighting. Far from being confusing, these scenes accentuate the realism without ever seeming merely mannerist or an affectation. And the filmic sense is increased by Paul Sportelli’s score that uses Gershwin and Verdi as points of reference, thereby reaching back into the past while simultaneously creating a contemporary sound to accompany the action.
Of course, her cast proves superbly effective in rising to her standards and to Kushner’s. As the mournful patriarch, Jim Mezon gives a performance that is filled with complicated emotional layers and that eschews his recent mode of shrill, stentorian, overblown vocal delivery. He limns a man estranged from himself, sharply steeped in an entropic view of the world, and aching to end his life in a meaningful way. The pain he causes in his family is real, and is registered vividly by Gray Powell as son Vito (physically striking, emotionally explosive) and Kelli Fox as Empty, who turns a climactic emotional confrontation with him into a scene of blazing anger, emotional hurt, and pleading love. As their eldest brother, Pill, Steven Sutcliffe treads a fine line between gay wit and deep emotional conflict, and he is able to project sexual yearning as well as melancholy guilt. When he pleads with his father not to die, he makes the moment achingly real and raw.
Fiona Reid is Clio, Gus’s eccentric spinster sister–a woman who has a chronic respect for contemplation, as well as a hilariously idiosyncratic penchant for grimness. Purged of her celebrated comic mannerisms, her performance is a gem of character acting. With her sad, gloomy eyes, she sits like a quiet mouse for the most part, but when an apercu breaks from her lips, it has a torque. And her final exit is uproarious as she silently descends a staircase, her face hidden behind a framed picture of the Virgin as Our Lady of Sorrows. In subsidiary roles, the others are mostly excellent. Ben Sanders, who gives a standout performance in The Divine, shows that he is no flash in the pan. His young hustler is hormonally charged, of course, but he has a yen for opera and the poetry of Robert Duncan. It is easy to see why he is such a dangerous lure to Pill. At the opposite end of this spectrum is Andre Sill’s Paul, a man with a sharp mind but who feels dragged to the doorstep of despair. Alas, this is the single flawed performance in the production because of Sill’s tendency to play the anger stridently and at dire cost to other emotional colourations. But there are compensations. Thom Marriott turns Adam into a hilarious subsidiary character, whether sober or drunk, although his single most uproarious moment is when he drunkenly climbs a table to compare himself to Chekhov’s Lopahin. Diana Donnelly has never been more amusingly conflicted than as pregnant Maev, bursting with intellectual rigour as well as off-the-wall comic grudge against a professor biased against her. Jasmine Chen as Vito’s Korean wife successfully conveys a sense of bewilderment in this hectic family dynamic, while Julie Martell as a suicide counsellor is properly clinical and dispassionate.
Densely textured, eloquently phrased with voluminous amplitude, and erupting with emotional turmoil, iHO becomes a fitting counterpart to Angels in America. In the hands of a lesser playwright, the characters would have been mere pawns or a mouthpiece for a master pulpit puppeteer. But Tony Kushner is a major playwright, and Eda Holmes and the Shaw Festival have done him proud. This is a production that demonstrates the fallacy of branding Kushner a gabby distant cousin of longwinded Shaw. Eda Holmes’s sterling production makes motive and meaning eminently clear in what most earlier American versions of this play have turned into a Babel of mixed, confusing voices and viewpoints. She and her cast have gone beyond the Shavian and Chekhovian varnish to reach the very essence of human self-wounding.