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Markus Potter and Tom Story
in The York Realist
Tradition and resistance to change trump the bittersweet love between two men in rural England circa the early 1960s in Peter Gill's The York Realist, now receiving its U.S. production at Studio Theatre. The play was a great success in the West End, playing to sold-out houses and winning the 2002 Critic's Circle Award. Now, American audiences may be surprised to discover that this is a quiet and thoughtful memory play performed with a naturalism rarely seen on the stage of late.

Directed by Serge Seiden, this is a carefully paced production, rich in atmosphere and engrossing in its depiction of overlapping relationships. Playwright Gill, a significant figure in British theater, has been instrumental in allowing the voices of the working class to be heard on stage. Often in this play, the characters attempt to express their feelings but cannot do so, their failure often saying more than eloquent dialogue. When we first meet the lovers at the top of the play, before the bulk of their story is told in flashback, they are seeing each other several months after having put aside their affair. They greet each other with a collection of stammers and long, embarrassed pauses: "Well." "Yes." "Aye." "Well, then. Umm, yeah. Come in." It's real, it's natural, and it immediately tells us how things are between these two.

The setting is a farm cottage in Yorkshire, home to George (Markus Potter) and his ill, aging mother (Faith Potts). Rugged, rustic George seems immune to the charms of sweet neighbor Doreen (Colleen Delaney), everyone's logical choice to become his mate. "She baked him a pie. What's he waiting for?" asks sister Barbara (Nanette Savard). Instead, George takes up with John (Tom Story), a sophisticated but shy assistant director from London who is in the province to work on an amateur theatrical production in which George has a part.

John would like George to abandon the farming life and move with him to London; but George declines, maintaining that he has to stay on to care for his old mum. When she dies, a world of choices would seem to open up for George, but he still feels bound to his home and his place in it; working-class roots go deep and it's unclear if he can, or even wants to, pull free. More than just a love story or an examination of a covert and illegal (at the time) homosexual relationship in an unusual setting, The York Realist is a study in how matters of class and culture influence and warp affairs of the heart. One ends up wondering just who the York realist may actually be.

Seiden allows his cast to take their time and to let silence become palpable even before any dramatic tension has been created. The ordinary rituals of life in an old farmhouse that seems to belong more to the 1860s than the 1960s (meticulously detailed by resident set designer Russell Metheny with aged wooden beams and drab furnishings) are allowed to unfold at their own natural tempo. Dressing, washing, and making tea are all part of the tapestry of mundane realism that matches Gill's frugal way with words. But if characters are unable to express themselves verbally, a director needs a very strong cast to convey the subtext -- and Seiden has that. As the stolid, monosyllabic farmer, George shows us a man seething with quiet frustration at his limitations. The ostensible freedom to make his own choices is not liberating to him but is, rather, another burden. Unable to explain why he can't just pack up and move to London, he strides about the ramshackle cottage and helplessly repeats, "It's me home."

It is a bit odd that this tongue-tied farmer takes a role in a local play. George is also unexpectedly at ease about being gay and quite adept at romancing John, the initially reluctant city boy. How he achieved such self-awareness in his remote village, especially at a time when being discovered could land him in jail, is not explored but seems somewhat inconsistent with the rest of the character's personality. Yet it adds an intriguing layer of mystery to George, thanks to Potter's gruff but sensitive portrayal.

Story avoids caricature as John, the much less overtly masculine and hesitant assistant director who becomes hopelessly smitten with George; he radiates ardor and also the despair that arises from the lovers' mismatched places in life. Potter and Story have developed an effective rapport that allows them to convincingly conduct their affair unnoticed right under mum's nose, even though mum and others may eventually sense what's going on. The very moment the two are left alone, the air becomes thick with sexual tension -- a magical effect, especially as Seiden pretty much keeps them apart physically. That tension evaporates just as quickly when someone enters the room.

Nanette Savard, Faith Potts, and
Colleen Delany in The York Realist
The script and the direction allow the cast to mine gentle comedy from the story. There are some arch twists in emphasis that create double entendres, as when Mother chirps about John, "He's a good lad; he took George in hand." The seduction scene, with George brandishing a jar of Vaseline, is played broadly for laughs. A sequence in which the family returns home after the play is a delightful exercise in unselfconscious provincialism as they critique the production entirely through their own set of experiences.

A conversation between a lonely Doreen and George's sister Barbara offers the play's most emotionally naked moments: Barbara, tears welling, gently tells the girl that George "may not be for marrying." Savard and Delany perform this moving scene quietly and without affectation, drawing the audience closer as Doreen accepts the situation with clear-eyed resolve.

Potts is endearing as George's mother, while Lawrence C. Daly and Joe Baker give well crafted portrayals of George's brother-in-law and nephew. There are no false notes in the cast, and all but Tom Story -- whose character comes from London -- speak in thick, convincing regional accents.

Set designer Metheny makes the point that this play is a throwback to an earlier generation's "kitchen sink" dramas by putting a working sink right in the parlor of the cottage. Devon Painter's costumes all seem to be a bit small for the actors, as if their characters are outgrowing some limitations and boundaries. In sum, the gritty visuals, the authentic sense of atmosphere, the growing momentum of Gill's script, and the finely honed performances produce an effect that is both beautiful and heartrending.

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