Chicago Theater Review: TIME IS ON OUR SIDE (About Face Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 8, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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UNLOCKING WHAT WAS NEVER HIDDEN

At least Time Is On Our Side is more sex-affirmative and upbeat than Significant Other, About Face Theatre’s last offering. A Midwest premiere devotedly staged by artistic director Megan Carney, this overlong 140-minute drama by R. Eric Thomas is, like Lookingglass Theatre’s equally unfortunate Plantation!, beautifully meant and (more) mature. Billed as a “gleeful mystery,” it’s a sympathetic, if utterly unsurprising, exploration of recent gay and lesbian history as seen in a diary that both tells all and offers little new about the old.

Full of supposedly astonishing revelations about stories that should have been totally predictable, Time Is on Our Side (a lovely title that looks forward better than it does backwards) centers on a Philadelphia podcast about local history. The eclectic enterprise, which chronicles stuff like the Pennsylvania “stops” of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth’s “underground railway,” is anchored by irascible, bantering gay co-hosts Annie (Maggie Scranton) and Curtis (Rashaad Hall). Seeking present-day “intersectionality” through disclosures from the past, they specialize in lost lore about the big city’s politics and personalities.

But Annie stumbles across something completely different — her own “blast from the past.” She happens onto her grandmother’s daily journal spanning 1966 to 1994. Strangely startled, Annie learns that her grandmother, an esteemed activist, was more of a role model than she realized. She may well have been gay and drawn to the equally mysterious Bea Fremont.

Despite Annie’s seemingly inexplicable defensiveness in protecting tales from the long dead, Curtis becomes immediately obsessed with this “secret sex diary” and its closet confessionals. After secretly photographing its pages, this driven love-detective begins storyboarding its contents like any conspiracy theorist. Recently disinherited because of his sexual orientation, Curtis is seeking “to crack open the great gay book of time.” Or reasonable facsimile.

Joined by their flamboyant pal Rene (Esteban Andres Cruz), an unreconstructed queer who practices “gay magic,” and popular actress Claudia (the equally outrageous Riley Mondragon), the radio sleuths pursue different paths to validate and illustrate grandma’s no-longer-lost link. They will open up the antediluvian lavender days in the City of Brotherly Love! Yeah verily, this was many moons ago when conventional marriages between closeted partners were really “arrangements” but, we discover, pretend weddings before partisans of the love that dare not speak its name could anticipate the real thing a half century early. The only safety, it seems, was secrecy. To quote from 2018, “OMG!”

In the second act the quartet’s random (and never urgent) investigations lead them to connect with hilariously curmudgeonly, veteran gay survivors of the pre-Stonewall era. Unveiling layers of secrecy (or just encountering the obvious), the young explorers are presented with such presumably rare archival treasures as panels from the AIDS Quilt, audio recordings of clandestine nuptials, and tales of drag bars (seemingly active when dinosaurs stalked the earth). Curtis and Annie briefly split up over her dogged desire to protect past privacy.

The undercover results of this “oral history” research are detailed in copious exposition about (too many) second-hand souls offering only hearsay testimony. The exposes collected from the ancient gay past (before disco!) are treated with thudding solemnity and specious awe. More personally, Annie, nursing old grievances, slowly discovers how wrong she was about her ostensibly homophobic grandfather.

The trouble is, despites a plethora of clues that yield precious little truth, there are no great marvels at the end of this rainbow search. These folks simply come across the understandably concealed doings of members of an always-threatened minority. You don’t yell “Stop the presses!” when you find out that gays got married before they, well, got married: Love is love is love and it goes on like life.

That may be the point of the play. But Thomas surrounds it with so much desperately forced comedy and pseudo-ecstatic gushing over what is a very ordinary journal. It’s as if he doesn’t trust the plot to be compelling enough. In fact, skip the “as if.”

None of this artificial excitement and déjà vu naiveté undermines Carney’s spirited staging (despite flubbed lines on opening night). Sinking themselves into both truth and stereotypes, the four performers acquit their script well. Interestingly, the towering set, by José Manuel Diaz, consists of about a dozen closet doors. I wish they had opened up to more wonders.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Time Is on Our Side

About Face Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
Wed-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on April 17, 2018
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit About Face

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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