Neil Maffin and Gregg Edelman in Thief River(Photo: Susan Johann)
Neil Maffin and Gregg Edelman in Thief River
(Photo: Susan Johann)
The empty, abandoned farmhouse that serves as the set for Lee Blessing's impressive new play Thief River is a stark metaphor for the unfulfilled lives of its two main characters. In this tautly written, intricately plotted work, Blessing visits two soul mates, Gil and Ray, at three pivotal moments in their lives covering a span of 53 years. During these three memorable meetings, we witness, in microcosm, the pain and waste of homophobia in America. Beyond that, Blessing creates such a compelling sense of the humanity of these two individuals (each played by three different actors) that their journey through life is given the texture of a personal epic.

Last season, Blessing gave us the uncompromising Cobb, a play in which the great, infamous baseball player Ty Cobb was presented at three different stages of his life. Blessing uses a similar device to get at the truth in Thief River. The play begins in June of 1948 with two high school students meeting in an empty farm house late one fateful night. Gil is in a state of high agitation; he's just been beaten up by the local bully and urinated upon. Ray tries to calm him, but a menace is lurking in the farmhouse in the person of a homophobic serial killer who witnesses the palpable relationship between Gil and Ray. Without giving anything away, suffice to say that the events of this night will have repercussions throughout the rest of their lives.

If the play's first scene borders on melodrama, Blessing turns it into an asset by deftly using it as the event that both separates these two men from each other and inextricably binds them together. When we see them again, in 1973, it's the first time they've seen each other in 25 years. Gil has returned to his rural, Midwestern hometown and has had the bad timing to arrive during the rehearsal for Ray's son's wedding. Worse, Gil has brought along his male lover, a flamboyant youth who makes no bones about his sexuality. There are a lot of shocks during the course of this confrontational visit; among them, we learn that Ray has been writing Gil passionate love letters every week since their last meeting. Gil has come back because Ray suddenly stopped writing.

Gil never denied his sexuality; he is now an openly gay travel writer living in a large, Midwestern city. Ray, on the other hand, married his (female) high school sweetheart, had a son, and prospered in his small town. The men are still drawn to each other, but life's complications aren't easily overcome. They don't see each other again until 2001, when Ray does something that is as rash as it is wonderful: He goes public with the story of what happened in 1948, when he and Gil almost became victims of the serial killer. The truth could put both the elderly Gil and Ray in prison, or it could finally bring together two men who have longed for each other for more than half a century.

Mark Lamos directs Thief River at a headlong pace that is balanced by his sure-handed grip on the emotional lynchpins of the material. Six actors play a total of 12 characters, and the three time periods are intercut throughout; the story isn't told in linear fashion, but the direction nonetheless propels it forward.

So do the performances. In fact, we haven't seen an ensemble of actors shine with such brilliance since Cobb. Blessing is an actor's writer and, in some cases here, the actors give career-making performances. Frank Converse displays a winning versatility as Ray's tough-minded uncle Anson in the 1948 sequence and as the rueful, elderly Ray of the 2001 finale. Remak Ramsay similarly showcases his range by capturing the essence of a local farmer whose tolerance is tested in 1973 and then essaying the battle-scared, aging Gil of 2001--a man who has survived the AIDS epidemic and won't take shit from anyone, including Ray. The performances of Gregg Edelman, Jeffrey Carlson, Erik Sorensen, and Neil Maffin could hardly be improved upon; Jerry Beaver's casting of the show is a triumph that should not go unnoticed.

Thief River is a world premiere production of The Signature Theatre Company at The Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street. The fact that the new season has begun with a play so rich and rewarding may suggest that New York is poised for another year of first-class theater.