Johnson's play combines the coming-of-age conventions with a coming-out story, and if there's nothing radically new about the material, it's often rendered with great honesty and sensitivity. Neighborhood Playhouse shows a lot of affection for Before My Eyes, staging it in its intimate Discovery Arena space, but it falls short of fulfilling the play's full potential.
Johnson dedicates Before My Eyes to his parents, and the play hinges on John's evolving relationship with his mother Ann (Katy Carkuff) and father Ross (Ax Norman). In the early scenes, Ross intimidates and hassles John to try to fit in with other children his age, but he's more of a momma's boy, chatting with Ann about dresses and hairstyles when Ross isn't around.
Neither parent quite knows how to handle his "effeminate" tendencies: When Ann says that he lip-syncs in close imitation of Streisand records, Ross' first reaction is "Is he any good?" Ross can be both a hard-drinking, macho ogre and unexpectedly honorable and warm. When he catches John making fun of an elderly black man, he forces him to apologize and the father and son bond over chocolate cake afterward.
Directed by Claire M. Hewitt, Before My Eyes offers glimpses of John's fantasy life, as when he imagines winning a national spelling award, presented by Streisand herself (Jeff Schrader). And he goes through youthful scenes of sexual curiosity that anyone can identify with, regardless of their orientation. When he has a seemingly like-minded friend spend the night, John quotes from select Walt Whitman poems, then starts wondering, "Isn't it hot in here?"
Patton's demeanor is naturally boyish enough that he can play John at 7 or 9 without being cloying or precocious. You get so accustomed to Patton playing him as vulnerable and withdrawn that it's harder to get a fix on the character as he grows older and more confident.
The performances of both parents aren't as distinct as the characterizations suggest. Ann's a woman who, we're told, reads Dostoevsky to her 7-year-old son and no doubt has considerable intellectual heft and deep frustrations, but Carkuff portrays her more like a suburban doormat and '60s-era soccer mom.
Ross' most salient trait is his fiery temper, but Norman doesn't quite find the right pitch. Sometimes he flies off the handle like a borderline psychotic, but other times his bellowing seems more like a fit on "The Honeymooners." The parents' biggest confrontation has Ann on the verge of walking out, with a suitcase in one hand and an oversized rifle in the other. It's the kind of moment that could play either as pulse- racing drama or domestic slapstick, but here it's neither, just an awkward spat with a prop that seems out of place.
Jeff Shrader plays multiple roles, including a reverend, John's roommates and, in drag, a schoolteacher and an erratic aunt. Shrader rarely camps up the woman roles and doesn't overplay Streisand, which is both a relief and kind of a disappointment -- if a drag Barbra doesn't go over the top, what's the point of it?
The second act begins with John in college, and the play loses some focus until the parental dynamic is re-established when John outs himself. Ross is initially outraged, then grudgingly supportive ("We respect your decision to be a homosexual," he pronounces). He eventually sticks up for his son in touching ways. When John is dumped by a boyfriend, Ross offers to "hunt him down like a dog." The play ends on a tear-jerking note that's nicely constructed and played.
Before My Eyes is a kind of benefit show for Neighborhood Playhouse's re-opening of the Discovery Arena, with the cast and crew volunteering their services for the production. Johnson's play qualifies as newer and edgier than the musicals and chestnuts presented on the main stage, but however well motivated, the production doesn't look deep enough into his Eyes.
Before My Eyes plays through Aug. 11 at the Neighborhood Playhouse Discovery Arena, 430 W. Trinity Place, Decatur, at 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. $12-15. 404-373-5311.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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