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Tea and Sympathy

Keen Company makes a strong case for Robert Anderson's 1953 play about a young man who's harassed for his perceived homosexuality.

Heidi Armbruster and Dan McCabe
in Tea and Sympathy
(© Dan Cordle)
When people say that a play is "dated," it's not always clear what they mean. Some plays are strongly tied to their era in terms of setting or language, yet they are so well written and so timeless in their concerns that they still hold the stage; others are no longer viable for production because they exhibit terribly outmoded social attitudes. As the Keen Company's strong revival of Tea and Sympathy proves, Robert Anderson's 1953 drama falls somewhere in the gray area between these two categories.

Set at a boys' boarding school in New Hampshire in the early 1950s, the play concerns the harassment of a young man who is perceived to be gay. Of course, this being the pre-Stonewall era, that specific term is never used; instead, Tom Lee (Dan McCabe) is described as "queer," a "fairy," and an "off-horse." His friends call him "Grace" because he flipped over the singer Grace Moore in a revival screening of One Night of Love, and he's mercilessly teased for everything from the way he walks to his love of music.

What makes the play relevant is that such fear and loathing still exists among our country's most willfully ignorant citizens (including some politicians). When Tom's schoolmates freak out at the thought of showering with a known homosexual, present-day audiences are bound to think of the gay panic that resulted in promulgation of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. And there can be little doubt that many homophobes still equate artistic talent with femininity while believing that a young man's prowess on the athletic field is a sure sign of his heterosexuality. If this sort of foolishness persists in 2007 -- and it does -- we should hardly roll our eyes when we hear it expressed by characters in a play that bowed on Broadway in 1953.

Tea and Sympathy is dated in a negative sense only insofar as Anderson took the easy way out in presenting Tom as wrongly accused (that's the appropriate word here) of being gay. As the action unfolds, we can't help wishing that one or more of the characters would say, "So what if the kid is homosexual? There's nothing wrong with that." But, of course, precious few people would have felt comfortable expressing such an opinion 54 years ago. At any rate, the play was written primarily as a veiled attack against the communist witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, though it works on both the literal and figurative levels.

The gangly McCabe is a terrific Tom, communicating the character's awkwardness and torment as well as his poetic soul. It helps that he actually looks 17; the character can seem laughable if assigned to an actor who has clearly left adolescence far behind. As Laura Reynolds, the housemaster's wife who selflessly sleeps with Tom in order to prove that he's not gay (!!!), Heidi Armbruster gives a warm, sensitive, smart performance -- and the fact that she's gorgeous makes it credible that Tom has no problem performing sexually with her after failing to rise to the occasion with the local good-time girl.

Craig Mathers is excellent as Laura's husband Bill, one of those "regular guys" whose open digust for "fairys" is a symptom of his own self-loathing. (Laura asks him, "Did it ever occur to you that you persecute in Tom...the thing you fear in yourself?") Brandon Espinoza hits every mark as Tom's roommate, Al, a jock with a good heart; Dan Cordle is perfect as the boy's father, who loves him but doesn't understand him; and Mark Setlock makes a vivid impression in his one scene as Mr. Harris, the teacher who unwittingly sets Tom's troubles in motion.

There are some questionable choices by director Jonathan Silverstein, including an odd lightness of touch in certain scenes of mounting tension. This may have been done on purpose so that the script wouldn't play as one long downer, and the company is successful in avoiding that trap.

Indeed, the only major problem with the production is the scenic design of Beowulf Boritt and Jo Winiarski; the section of the playing area that represents Tom's room is so tiny that the actors have great difficulty jockeying for position on it, and some of the set decorations are ill chosen. (Why do both Tom and Laura have old-style gramophones in their rooms? Can't they afford 1950s hi-fi?)

A gem doesn't have to be flawless to be valuable. For the reasons noted above, productions of Tea and Sympathy are as rare as enlightened remarks from Ann Coulter, so the Keen Company should be commended for unearthing this fascinating time capsule and making such a strong case for it.