By John A. Adams
Directed by Alexander Harrington
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Joey Miller’s (Nick Ryan) dream in college in 1985 is to play professional basketball after graduating. Ideally – like his favorite player Larry Bird – he would play for his favorite team the Boston Celtics. Although he could imitate Bird’s moves on the court, his 5’9” stature prevents him from reaching his dream. But it is not only his height that gets in the way of dream fulfillment. Joey responds to the advances of Rob a gay student at a post-game party by beating him violently. His vicious attack loses Joey his scholarship and his place on the college team and lands him in the hands of a judge that delivers a two-year community service gig at a hospice run by the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Center.
Joey’s on-site supervisor Melinda Curtis (played with a requisite toughness by Laura E. Johnston) assigns him to care for Richard “Buck” Farrell (John Fennessy) a gritty foul-mouthed ex-cop who lives alone and needs help with some light housework and cooking. She recognizes Joey’s deep-seated homophobia and profound anger and reminds him that he can either control his homophobic outbursts or go to prison. Joey’s anxiety about the assignment heightens when Melinda suggests Joey can also have his meals with Buck and stay in Buck’s apartment.
The encounter between Joey and Buck is the gritty stuff of John A. Adams’s play “In the Shadow of a Dream” currently running at the Midtown International Theatre Festival at WorkShop Theater’s Main Stage Theater in Manhattan. As one would expect, the two clash in every possible way each challenging the other’s firmly entrenched stereotypes and prejudices. Mr. Adams’s period piece has layers of disclosure and motivation for the main characters which evolve in the course of the two act play. There are wonderful tropes including the extended basketball metaphor and intriguing parallels between Joey’s and Buck’s seemingly disparate lives.
But it is on their road trip to Los Angeles to attend a Laker’s game with a side trip to Buck’s family home – to confront his parents and his demons – that rivets the audience in the second half of the play and brings the rising action in the first half to a chilling climax. A spoiler alerts prevents detailed rehearsal of the plot driven by the authentic conflicts of these two well-developed characters. It might be enough to say the action includes: a weapon; the revelation of Buck’s motivation for asking Joey to drive him to Plainfield, New Mexico; the underbelly of Joey’s homophobia and self-loathing; and whether or not Buck saw Joey prior to his assignment as his caregiver.
Nick Ryan and Broadway veteran John Fennessy are the perfect match for the roles of Joey and Buck. Mr. Ryan gives Joey the inner vulnerability and secret longing for authentic connection his angry homophobic persona masks. This young actor uses his craft to portray Joey’s complex range of emotions and layers of self-denial and self-hatred. And Mr. Fennessey brings a deep resilience and complexity to his character Buck Farrell. He skillfully cradles Buck’s pain and rage and parcels them out with a delicious range of emotions and expressions. These generous actors work well together in every way.
Director Alexander Harrington keeps the action moving at a reasonable pace with some quickening needed in the beginning of the second half. Elizabeth Bove plays Buck’s mother Susan with a contemptible core of hatred and Robert Vincent Smith plays Buck’s father who harbors a secret that shatter’s Buck’s expectations. Rounding out the cast is Matthew Porter who handily plays Joey’s coach, a loan officer, and a cab driver.
Hate crimes – often violent ones – continue to be committed against members of the LBGTQ community in major cities and rural enclaves around the United States and throughout the world. “In the Shadow of a Dream” not only highlights those crimes and the entrenched and systemic homophobia extant in our culture; it also focuses attention on the roles played by dysfunctional families, dishonesty, and religious organizations in the maintenance and spread of homophobia and its attendant horrors inflicted on members of the LGBTQ community.