The Boys Room by Joel Drake Johnson which had its world premiere in Chicago in 2011, is making its area premiere this month at Gremlin theatre in St. Paul. Having seen the play I cannot imagine why it has taken eleven years for a local theater to produce this powerful, funny, dark, heartbreaking play. The play features four meaty roles that any actor would relish the opportunity to play. Perhaps we are fortunate that it didn’t play before now because it’s hard to imagine a production that could improve on this one. There isn’t anything that doesn’t work in this production, working from a brilliant script, every aspect from the lighting, set design, and performances is flawless. It’s wonderful to see something new that feels raw and real in such a visceral way, this is theater that will move you at times to laugh and at times, to cry.
Johnson’s play tells of two grown sons who come home to the house they grew up in to escape the adult world they can’t seem to face anymore. Tim has been living back with his Mom, Susan, for awhile having gotten divorced and lost his job, he is there because he has nowhere else to go. Ron has walked out on his wife, who was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and their daughter Roann, he’s there because he wants to be. Susan cares for her sons but isn’t overly affectionate towards them; however, she is warm and attentive to her granddaughter Roann. Ron and Tim, two grown brothers who don’t seem to like each other very much have a difficult time sharing their boyhood bedroom, easily falling back into old childish patterns. Much of the humor in the show comes from their adolescent behavior and bickering where much of the truth comes from the moments when they do connect as men. When Roann comes looking for her father to ask him questions, we see the depths and shallows of their characters. Roann also brings out the warmth and nurturing side in Susan. The Boys Room isn’t just about men who seem to have regressed back into children it’s about familial relationships. The dynamics between parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren and how they impact other relationships. It also explores our capacity for selfishness and who we are willing to be there for and who we aren’t.
Gremlin Theatre has rounded up three actors familiar to MN theatergoers who nail their parts but it’s newcomer Lucy Farrell who takes the stage as Roann about midway through the play announcing, there is a new rising star in the Twin Cities. To say Farrell blew me away would be an understatement, the first words on my lips as I left the play is who is this actress? Where did she come from? In her scenes with Linda Kelsey who plays her grandmother Susan, she has a playful rapport when they practice Susan’s Spanish together. But the two also have a very palpable tenderness that radiates from both of them. When she confronts her father and namesake Ron, played by Dan Hopman, she unleashes all of the anger and pain that we have seen glimpses of in the scenes leading up to it. She is adept at playing all these different aspects of the character, playful, confessional, worried, angry, sad, strong not in individual scenes, but you sense all of these multitudes within her the entire time. Gremlin Theatre Artistic Director Peter Christian Hansen plays Tim, the brother who is reading Jane Eyre for the second time so that he can try and connect with his own daughter. It may perhaps be unfair to devote so much time to Farrell’s performance when she is sharing the stage with three actors who give as memorable performances as her co-stars do. Hopman channels despondency perfectly, he somehow makes a character whose actions are pretty sickening somewhat sympathetic by the end. Hansen makes the frustration of Tim being intruded upon relatable through the tragic nature of his circumstance, showing us his pain and how much this room has become a refuge for him. Kelsey, plays Susan as a character who behaves differently depending on who she is with, but again, she makes it all feel authentic, we never don’t believe that the woman who is dismissive of Ron is the same woman who talks to her granddaughter with such love and warmth.
Brian Balcom directs the play, with perhaps the one small criticism I could make, there are a couple of fairly long stretches where a character sits with their back to the audience. But otherwise his staging works very well. I especially liked that characters in rooms other than where the action was taking place continued on with their lives, the lights would dim on them but they continued in conversation as if a mute button had been pressed. Carl Schoenborn as Technical Director and Scenic and Lighting Design created a space that clearly defines the two main areas of the house the boys bedroom and the kitchen using his lighting to direct our focus.
The Boys Room runs through November 27th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://gremlintheatre.org/
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