On Thursday night (4-24-08) I drove downtown to the Upperstage of the Indiana Repertory Theatre to see “Iron Kisses” by James Still. It was directed by David Bradley. The artistic director of the IRT is Janet Allen. Steven Stolen is the managing director.
James Still has been the IRT’s playwright-in-residence for the past ten years, but “Iron Kisses” is the first play by him that I have seen.
It is an interesting and cathartic 90 minutes. I want to write about all of it, so I am warning you here that there are spoilers in this review.
Two actors – Ryan Artzberger and Constance Macy – portray a brother and sister – Billy and Barbara – AND their parents.
The play feels very message-y at first. Artzberger portrays Billy’s mother and father talking about what it was like to get an invitation to their gay son’s wedding in San Francisco. They also talk about what it was like to be his parents when Billy was growing up and coming out in their small, Midwestern town.
It is not preachy, exactly, but I felt as if the playwright had assumed that his audience would not know about or understand the feelings and thoughts behind the debate over legalization of gay marriage. These are important things, they do still need to be said – because the debate is definitely not over – but I felt as if I had heard them all before. I felt that I was listening to a safe and comfortable summary, competently and sensitively put together, but not earth-shattering in terms of art. I wondered if the other people in the mostly grey-haired audience the night I saw it were shocked. They didn’t seem to be. The chuckles of recognition were just that: chuckles. Not yelps or gasps or hisses.
What made the play intriguing to me, however, was Artzberger’s switching back and forth between portraying Billy’s mother and father and, occasionally, Billy himself. He did it very fluidly but also very clearly. I always knew who he was. It was fascinating to watch and listen to him.
And then, suddenly, sharply, I missed my own mother. She died around Mother’s Day two years ago. Listening to Billy’s mother talk about both of her children and about her conflicted feelings about going to her gay son’s wedding, I couldn’t help thinking that if I ever get married, my mother will not be there.
Suddenly the play was about more than an issue. It was about a family, and about all families, and I had been pulled in to an emotional involvement with it in spite of myself.
In the second part, Constance Macy plays the same two parents. It took me a few lines to understand this. Macy’s role-switching is as fluid and clear as Artzberger’s, maybe even more so, but her portrayals of the two parents don’t “match” his. Although this is a little confusing at first, ultimately it is more correct, artistically and emotionally. No two siblings remember their parents exactly the same in real life, either.
Now, with Macy portraying them, the mother and father talk about coming home from the wedding ceremony in San Francisco and about Barbara and her children picking them up at the airport. They learn about her decision to divorce her husband, and we learn more about their different experiences of their own marriage.
Each of the three parts is funny as well as moving. I don’t want to forget to mention that.
In the third part, Barbara is at Billy’s home in San Francisco. Their mother has just died (“What?!” I thought, “Oh, NO!”) from a disease that she had kept hidden from them.
The third part is where the play really zings. I was crying too hard to stand up at the end – I could barely clap – and not just out of sympathy with the siblings’ grief. I felt gratitude for my own two siblings, too, and I wished we lived closer together. I felt admiration for the playwright’s ability to not only capture the multitude of thoughts and feelings and experiences related to gay marriage but also to many other aspects of family life.
Barbara is so strong, for example, but what she needs after her divorce and their mother’s death and everything else is for her brother not to call her the best sister in the world but to “Just say I’m pretty.” Man, I could relate to that. I don’t necessarily need my brother to say I’m pretty (I think that would feel odd, actually) but if one more person tells me that I am stronger than I think, I may scream. I know I am strong! What I don’t know is: is anyone I’m interested in ever going to think I’m attractive again?
Barbara also startles Billy by letting him know that part of why their parents accepted him as a gay man was because of her hard work after he left home. “Somebody had to raise Mom and Dad,” she says. “Do you think they grew up because they WANTED to?” I probably do not fully appreciate what other people have done for me, either.
I was startled, myself, by Billy confessing to Barbara that he had cheated on his partner, Michael, after their relationship was no longer recognized by the government as a legal marriage. He didn’t say it was a direct cause and effect, but something about the way he said it made me wonder: was he really implying that he thought a marriage license would have kept him faithful? Surely not. Maybe Billy is still trying to figure out what marriage truly means. In any case, it made sense to me that marriage is challenging for everyone.
This play about a family is sort of like actually being in a family: you don’t realize until later how deeply it has been working on you.
The design elements in this piece are deceptively simple as well. The beautiful blocking takes advantage of a large square in the floor of designer Russell Metheny’s earth-air-and-metal set. The square is filled with pebbles. When the actors “happen” to step across it, the sound gives a subtle emphasis to their words.
Metheny’s set also includes two large, rectangular scrims that seem to float forward to share family and wedding photos. The effect is visually pleasing all by itself but also adds to the intimate feel of the show, like being able to look at the family’s mantelpiece. There is one piece of furniture: a low wooden bench with flat, grey cushions on it. The two actors move it around easily.
The costumes, designed by Kathleen Egan, are simple, everyday pants and shirts. This allows the actors to communicate a lot about their characters through their own bodies.
Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design gently and creatively adds to the affectionate feeling of the piece. At one point, the lighting and sound design told me that we were in church even before the actor did, but in a very subtle, unexpected way. The original music for “Iron Kisses” is by Christopher Colucci.
After the show, I stopped at the little store in the 4th floor lobby and bought a copy of the script for $14. It is a much smaller booklet than I would have thought, but I am glad to have it. I bought a copy of “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” also by James Still, too. I am planning to see that next week. I would love to be able to buy a copy of the script for every show I see!
I was a little disappointed to learn that being IRT’s playwright-in-residence does not mean that James Still actually lives here. He was born in Kansas, he has a contract with the Indiana Repertory Theatre, but he lives in California. I understand that the west coast offers more opportunities for the other work that he does – TV and movie making and so on – but still…I had been fantasizing about running into him at the grocery store or the post office or somewhere.
“Iron Kisses” runs through May 11 on the Upperstage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. “Looking Over the President’s Shoulder,” also by James Still, runs through May 3 on the IRT’s Mainstage. Make reservations online or by calling 317-635-5252.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com