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Farm Boys

Craig Jorczak and David Drake in Farm Boys.
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Representations of gay life usually focus on urban environments, but that's only part of the picture. Will Fellows's Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest, published in 1996, offers a different perspective. Playwrights Amy Fox and Dean Gray use this work as a jumping off point for their play Farm Boys. Although they call their work an adaptation, it would be more accurate to say that Fox and Gray were inspired by the book, which is a collection of first-person narratives by different generations of gay men who grew up in rural farming communities. The five characters that inhabit the play are original creations, even if aspects of their stories and even snippets of their dialogue are traceable to the Fellows book.

John (Thomas James O'Leary) journeys with his boyfriend Kim (David Drake) from their home in New York City to Colby, Wisconsin, where John was born and raised. He left the town in the early 1980s under less than ideal circumstances and has returned because his ex-lover, Lyle (Jim Madden), has recently passed away, leaving his farm to John. Being on the farm brings back memories -- both good and bad. John is literally haunted by Lyle, even as his relationship with Kim reaches a turning point.

Parts of the script are well written but other sections simply don't work. The worst idea is having a now-deceased Lyle wander around dressed for the beach; apparently, his conception of Heaven is Fire Island, or at least an idealized version of it that he read about in semi-pornographic magazines. These scenes add nothing to the overall dramatic arc of the play and have the side effect of making Lyle seem rather simple-minded.

The character appears much more effectively in the flashback sequences that show him interacting with a young John; O'Leary and Madden have a nice onstage chemistry, and the Lyle-John relationship seems believable. We learn that their romance began the summer after John graduated from high school. Lyle had recently divorced, following a suicide attempt and his coming out to his wife, Lois (Joan Grant). John came to stay with Lyle, partly because he wanted to get away from his abusive father and partly because he'd heard rumors that Lyle was gay. John is the aggressor in the relationship, more experienced with gay sexuality than the older man and more prone to be reckless and carefree.

In the present-day of the play, John keeps a lot of anger and regret bottled up inside him. This results in a certain amount of coldness in his interactions with others, including Kim, but the genuine affection that we see in John's relationship with Lyle indicates that this pattern of behavior is something he's learned over the years. Much of it can be traced to his upbringing and to a violent episode, revealed late in the play, that led John to flee Colby without looking back.

O'Leary appears to have a strong emotional connection to the material, and his John seems especially vulnerable in a scene where he revisits his father's old farm. Drake is a pleasure to watch, mining the humor in the script without taking it too far. Madden does not come across as well and seems slightly creepy in the scene where Lyle and John begin their relationship, an effect that was surely not intended.

Grant brings a nice combination of warmth and regret to the role of Lyle's ex-wife. Lois accepted Lyle's sexuality unconditionally and is extremely supportive of John and Kim, yet she has held on to a certain amount of anger: She followed the rules and married like she was supposed to, but her life did not turn out as planned. Rounding out the cast is Craig Jorczak, as Keith, a young man whom Kim finds sleeping in the barn. Keith is fighting a losing battle with his sexual desire for men, giving thanks to the Lord for beautiful people while praying to resist lustful temptation.

Directed by Jim Pelegano, Farm Boys is an engaging theatrical experience but also a frustrating one. The final two scenes attempt to wrap up all of the loose plot threads, but the reconciliations and resolutions appear rushed. In particular, Keith's final confrontation with John and Kim seems forced, and John's decision about what to do with the farm seems to come out of nowhere. Fox and Gray should revisit their source material; it would help the play if they did away with the ghostly visitations and some of the more melodramatic turns of the plot. Then they could concentrate on what inspired them in the first place: true-life stories of a segment of the gay population that is rarely paid attention.


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