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Tea and Sympathy
By Robert Anderson

Through February 5, 2005

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Talkin Broadway

Tea and Sympathy
Reviewed by Susan Berlin

Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama, is too often remembered as a story about a sensitive teenage boy “saved” from the “threat” of homosexuality by the ministrations of a kind older woman – not just a dated view of sexuality, but too infuriating and patronizing to even consider presenting today. American Century Theatre’s current production of the play brings out that the nature of sexuality isn’t Anderson’s primary subject at all, conformity is.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola makes this point in a subtle, almost subliminal way: as Laura Reynolds (Sheri S. Herren), wife of a prep-school teacher, sits reading poetry, a radio plays one of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic speeches about the insidious danger of Communism. Similarly, in the insular world of the all-male school, to people like Laura’s husband Bill (Carl Randolph), men who are not the traditional macho, muscular “regular fellows” are considered just as threatening as Communists were in the larger world.

Tom Lee (Joe Baker) stands alone in this environment as dangerously “different.” He’s shy and bookish, enjoys singing, and acts the female leads in the school plays. He finds Laura a kindred spirit, as she is a former actress with insights no one else can really appreciate. In Mazzola’s staging, the nature of their connection is evident (but not overdone) from their first scene together, making the resolution organically appropriate.

Baker is the right age for the role, a high-school senior, and his performance is fearlessly open and remarkably skilled for a young performer. Herren ably conveys the character’s discomfort with the repressions and frustrations she has to face, and the shy pleasure she finds sharing her opinions and life experiences with Tom.

With such a nuanced reading of the relationship between Laura and Tom, the risk exists of Bill becoming a stereotyped heavy. Instead, Randolph portrays Bill as a prisoner of his society’s expectations. He is afraid to admit to his feelings, preferring to hide behind the stereotype of the tough man, always in control.

The rest of the cast is fine, although Bill Aitken as Tom’s father registers especially strongly with the shifting blend of pride, anger, pity and frustration he feels toward a son he can’t understand. Kathryn Fuller makes the most of her two scenes as Laura’s friend, a fellow faculty wife and would-be bombshell.

Matt Soule’s ingenious set in Gunston Theatre II’s black box space places the audience on two facing sides, with the Reynolds’ drawing room to one side and, up a few stairs, Tom’s bedroom to the other. The lighting design by Marianne Meadows fills in the blanks, and adds to the overall illusion.

-- Susan Berlin

Cast List:

Laura Reynolds: Sheri S. Herren
Bill Reynolds: Carl Randolph
Tom Lee: Joe Baker
Herb Lee: William Aitken
Lilly Sears: Kathryn Fuller
Mr. Harris: Brian Crane
Al: Jeff Consoletti
Steve: Devon Schall
Ralph: Michael W. Bigley
Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola

Read this review on the Talkin Broadway website.

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Potomac Stages

Tea & Sympathy
A Potomac Stages Pick for solid drama and smooth performances

This is what The American Century Theater does best. This substantial, satisfying performance of a fascinating play rarely seen today on any stage professional, collegiate or community is more than just a trip back a half a century in theater or even American history. It is a thoroughly satisfying drama touching on topics as relevant today as they were in the age of Ozzie and Harriet. With polished, if somewhat subdued - even restrained - performances, the focus remains on the well constructed storyline and the naturalistic writing of Robert Anderson. Opening on Broadway in 1953, this touching drama ran for nearly two years. It was his first big hit and presaged works to come including plays such as I Never Sang for My Father and screenplays such as The Sand Pebbles and The Nun's Story.

Storyline: At an exclusive boys school in the 1950s a boy comes under suspicion for homosexuality because of his combination of interest in the arts and a certain lack of macho swagger. While the headmaster of his dormitory is appalled by the prospect of scandal in his house and fears its impact on his own career, his new wife finds something in the young man that she can't find in her husband.

Director Steven Scott Mazzola has been responsible for a number of the fine presentations of this company including The Second Man, which was also designated a Potomac Stages Pick, and Picnic, which would have been had it not been produced before we began designating picks. He has a touch for the kind of naturalistic drama which was produced in such quantity for the American stage in the post-World War II period. He lets the stories tell themselves, avoiding excesses of staging and directing his cast to avoid performance excesses which could distract.

This time out, Mazzola's passion for avoiding over-acting seems to have held his cast in even tighter restraint, and at times that restraint is too noticeable. Sheri S. Herren gives a cool, clean performance as the headmaster's bride who sees in the troubled teenager a glimmer of events in her own past, but the heat, anger and frustration her character feels boils over in too brief an explosion. Joe Baker's performance as that teen is kept under tight control when he might well explode a time or two. Carl Randolph probably benefits most from this approach as his character, the headmaster, is the most repressed and ready-to-blow part in the play. He finally explodes quite nicely. William Aitken, despite a few strangely blocked scenes (he manages to hit the liquor decanters before so much as a how-de-do in one scene) makes what may be the most dated of the characters ring true when necessary.

Matt Soule has designed another of his sprawling sets. While the spreading of Titus Andronicus over the spacious floor of the Clark Street Playhouse for the Washington Shakespeare Company worked beautifully and his vertically challenging design for Lord of the Flies at Rorschach Theatre provided multiple levels for the multiple threads of the story, this simple two-room and a hall setting becomes a barrier for all too many in the audience. He places two audience seating bleachers on the south and east sides of the playing space. Those sitting on the east have a clear view of nearly all the action but some of those those sitting on the south find a closed, full height door between themselves and significant scenes. The theater follows an open seating policy so, if you attend - and we suggest that you do - take a seat in the rows to your right when you enter the house rather than those directly in front of you.

Written by Robert Anderson. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola. Design: Matt Soule (set) Cynthia Thom (costumes) Eleanor Gomberg (properties) Marianne Meadows (lights) Kevin Harney (sound) Shane Wallis (fight choreography) Jeff Bell (photography) Annie Alesandrini (stage manager). Cast: William Aitken, Joe Baker, Michael W. Bigley, Jeff Consoletti, Brian Crane, Kathryn Fuller, Sheri S. Herren, Carl Randolph, Devon Schall. 

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The Washington Post

A 'Tea' Well Served by ACT Cast Keeps 1953 Play About Homophobia From Seeming Dated

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page C04

Can "Tea and Sympathy" stay on the menu in the era of "Will & Grace"? Even for a company like American Century Theater, committed to staging neglected 20th-century American classics, Robert Anderson's drama about homophobia may seem a difficult sell. "Tea and Sympathy" made its author's name when it opened on Broadway in 1953, and it remained a staple of community theater for years. But these days the stereotypes and angst-ridden judgments of the play's characters -- staff and students at a New England boys' boarding school -- and their palaver about "manliness" may feel like the products of another time.

But American Century's focused and generally well-acted production argues persuasively for the play's less perishable aspects. Under the direction of Steven Scott Mazzola, the performers dig into the specifics of Anderson's poignant story while emphasizing the timeless human vices it spotlights: pettiness, stereotyping, fear of difference, zeal for staying in with the in crowd.

"He's going to have to learn to run with the other horses," a character remarks of Tom, the shy boy whose artsy proclivities -- he plays folk songs on his guitar! -- unleash the tempest in this prep-school teacup. Needless to say, conformist sentiment hardly went out with the 1950s -- just look at the pages of any consumer magazine today.

Helping to counteract "Tea and Sympathy's" dated reputation is Sheri S. Herren as the nurturing Laura Reynolds, wife of the housemaster. Herren's quiet performance provides the revival with an emotional core: Her Laura is reserved, it seems, because she is always listening, a quality that draws attention to the fact that the drama's villains -- Laura's husband, Bill (Carl Randolph), and Tom's father, Herb (William Aitken) -- lack empathy, first and foremost.

Fiddling with his tie, hanging his head so that his strawberry blond bangs dangle over his eyes, the ethereal-looking Joe Baker inhabits the role of Tom with a slight awkwardness, but the aura isn't too far removed from the adolescent gawkiness that's part of Tom's problem to begin with.

The grim-faced Randolph brings a suitably officious machismo to Bill, a character who is virtually a cardboard cutout. It's almost impossible to believe that the hypersensitive poetry lover Laura would ever have married this guy, but Anderson's script doesn't give the actors much to work with in that regard. As the callous Herb, Aitken tempers old-boy joviality with flashes of irritated helplessness whenever he's dealing with his son.

Kathryn Fuller strikes a slightly discordant note with an overly affected interpretation of Lilly, a femme fatale who relishes her chance to tantalize sex-obsessed schoolboys. But Jeff Consoletti is agreeably natural as Tom's roommate, Al, who in one particularly pathetic scene tries to teach Tom to walk with a less effeminate stride (it's harder than you think).

As the scenes progress, the performances draw one into the tale's intensity, but it's Mazzola's unusual use of space that makes the biggest impression, and right off the bat. The audience is split into two sections, divided by the playing area, which also consists of two segments. As a result, a viewer is always looking at other audience members while contemplating Matt Soule's naturalistic set, with its stodgy bookshelves and decanters (Cynthia Thom's costumes, especially the demure but attractive clothes worn by Laura, are equally appropriate to the setting).

Presumably the layout reflects Mazzola's determination to implicate viewers in a play that's considered past its prime. But in a nice touch, the odd spatial arrangement also seems to underscore the relentless publicness of life in an institution. Anyone who has ever been to boarding school, or even worked in an office, will recognize the unforgiving privacy vacuum in which Tom has to function -- a context in which missteps can instantly become common knowledge, a humiliation that tea and sympathy can hardly relieve.

Tea and Sympathy, by Robert Anderson. Directed by Steven Scott Mazzola; set design, Matt Soule; costumes, Cynthia Thom; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Kevin Harney. At Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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