Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review - Room Enough - Flannel Mafia Theatre Group - Mom Vs. Gay Love? - 4 stars

If you’re wondering about the general impact of Robb Krueger’s new play Room Enough, being presented at the Phoenix by Flannel Mafia Theatre Group, I can report the following: everyone around me was laughing a lot through act one, then laughing and crying a lot through act two, and pretty much all on their feet for curtain call.  So Room Enough is an enormously affecting play, full of humor, and also full of genuine sentiment (which keeps it from being sentimental in a bad way).  It also looks death and loss squarely in the face without being maudlin. 

“It’s weird hearing you swear.”
“I’ve been practicing.”

The year is 1988.  Recently widowed Laura (Jean Wolff) decides to reconnect with her estranged gay son Michael (Colton Moyer), who is living in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis with his boyfriend of four years David (Charliey Libra).  Michael is also living with HIV/AIDS and seems to be managing OK so far.  But this is 1988.  They hadn’t found the miracle drug cocktail yet that turned AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease (assuming, of course, you could afford the drugs).  Also, Michael lost his job when his employers found out about his illness.  Luckily, David’s job is enough to help them stay afloat. 

“I look like a Dalmatian.”

Laura has a lot to make up for on her visit, since she and her late husband Russ (Scott Gilbert) didn’t take Michael’s coming out well.  Mother and son only started to reconnect at the father’s funeral.  Laura’s church friends are still lobbying over the phone to get her to see if she can bring Michael back to the church, and away from gay life in the big city.  But that’s not really the conflict here.  Laura’s heart is never really fully invested in any kind of conversion strategy. 

“And that’s how a pity f**k prevented me from jumping out of the plane.”

The friction results from Laura and David butting heads.  David is very protective of Michael, and he knows from personal experience how much parents can hurt their child.  Any interaction between David and his own distant mother Lydia (Jane Burke) just reopens festering wounds.  Perhaps in reaction to this, David frequently bristles at any admonishment to “tone it down” or “be less gay around mom.”  Michael’s continuing attempts to keep the peace eventually take a toll on his health.  Everyone then bands together to help Michael through his crisis.

“Of course he’s still gay.  I’ve only been here a week and a half.”

Playwright Robb Krueger has written a witty and honest play.  Director Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha has assembled a committed cast who don’t hold anything back, whether they’re loving or fighting (and there’s a lot of both).  Probably the most refreshing thing about the production is the way it portrays the relationship between Michael and David.  They’re dealing with a lot, between their personal family baggage, and the health and employment issues.  But they’re a real team, being strong for each other when one of them stumbles.  And four years on, they still can’t seem to keep their hands off one another.  But it’s sex as an example of the depth of their feeling for one another, rather than gratuitous coupling just to spice up the play.  In fact, they seem to be even more attracted to each other in what would seem to be inappropriate times when things seem the most dire - yet it never seems “wrong” and its end up telling the audience a lot about who they are as a couple.

“Mom, Dad, I’m gay.”
“I made pie.”

Room Enough will affect the people who watch it in different ways, depending on their own lived experience (I guess you could say that about pretty much any play, but it seems especially true here).  I was surprised by how distant I remained from it, unlike the rest of the audience.  I enjoyed the performances and the characters, but I could feel myself resisting being drawn in.  That’s probably because I knew where it was going and I didn’t want to go there.  Despite the occasional flashback or reappearance of a character who was already dead by the time the events of the play begin in 1988, Room Enough is a resolutely linear play.  It begins not long after the death of one character and will see us through the deaths of two more before it’s done.  Both recently and not so recently, I’ve been through enough of that in real life.  So if a piece of entertainment is going to make me watch somebody die, there better be a damn good reason for putting me through that.  Hence, my resistance.  Also, for far too many years, the only way you could find any story with a gay person in it, they had to be dying.  So I’ve seen my share of fictional characters suffer, too.  I may just be all cried out at this point.  If I’m thinking of that line from the movie Heathers, “I love my dead gay son!” then I’m probably not having the reaction the artists intended.

“You need an open mind.”
“If I open my mind that far, my brain’s gonna fall out.”

None of that is meant to take anything away from the efforts of the folks at Flannel Mafia producing Room Enough.  As I noted before, everyone is tackling this story with full intensity and commitment.  The play just seemed determined to forgive characters I wasn’t ready to forgive, and kill characters I wasn’t ready to see die.  That’s not the story’s problem.  Room Enough isn’t about forgiveness that’s easy.  It’s about unearned forgiveness, or grace, which is harder.  It’s also about learning to cope when you’re dealt a bad hand.  And that’s hard, too.  I guess if we’re going to get grace, I need the story to give me a little more honest give and take about religion and faith, and right now Room Enough is just kind of skipping across the surface and around the edges of that.  And if someone’s going to die, and you want me to really feel it, then I need to see more time with them getting to live first.

“I bought marijuana from a drag queen.”

Room Enough is an expansion of a previous one-act version of the same story, and in watching it you can feel it pushing at the boundaries of standard structure with the flashbacks and isolated monologues and the reappearance of characters who are already dead.  Part of me wishes that the play allowed itself to flop around in time a little more.  Of course, you need to get to know a person first, so that their loss means something and impacts the audience.  That’s why the current more linear structure works so well emotionally.  But there’s some wiggle room between an absolutely linear plot and one where the order of time means nothing at all.  We could see more things with our own eyes rather than have them served up to us in more expository ways.  Maybe trust the audience to follow along and resist the need to provide an on or off-ramp for a trip into the past or future.

“Hello, Lottie?  Yup, still gay.  Bye bye now.”

But again, that’s me, tinkering with someone else’s story.  Quite literally everyone else around me was fully engaged and following the characters every step of the way, just the way it was - and that’s as much the script as it is the really fine performances of all the actors involved.  So if you want a window into what it used to be like - when acceptance and love were hard to come by, and survival was harder, but people still managed - you should check out Room Enough.  Whether you want to be grateful those particular times are behind us, or want to remind yourself so we don’t let things slip back, Room Enough is a good way to do that, and get your laugh on (and your cry on) while you’re at it. (runs through June 23, 2018 at the Phoenix Theater)

4 stars - Highly Recommended

[left to right - Michael (Colton Moyer) gets close to David (Charliey Libra) while Laura (Jean Wolff) offers up some bars - photo courtesy Flannel Mafia Theatre Group]

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