Pictured: Johnathan Nieves and Selina Fillinger. Photo by Dean La Prairie.
Review: SYCAMORE at Raven Theatre
By Jude Hansen
It’s always exciting to see a new play, especially when it is directed in such a delicate way. When you enter the theater for Raven’s production of SYCAMORE, two pink frameworks of houses call to mind a sense of nostalgia, and when coupled with summery tunes, the atmosphere evokes youthful reckless abandon. There is a sense of possibility in the air for the teenage protagonists — one that promises to elevate them beyond indulgent angst-ridden clichés. However, this elevation is never to be. Instead, we come to learn that the characters are trapped by these structures in a tale of suburban teenage woes.
The family of SYCAMORE is recovering after the love spurned Henry (Julian Larach) attempts a drugged up suicide on the highway. Dealing with the fallout from this are his sour cheerleader/actress sister Celia (Selina Fillinger), his mopey father (a failed professor now working as a line chef, played by Tom Hickey) and his mother who has nothing more to do than grow tomatoes. Robyn Coffin, as the mother Louise, provided some delightfully unexpected moments of levity with a performance peppered with surprising and quirky reactions.
We are told that these siblings fight over everything and like to take things that don’t belong to them. Yet apart from a few items of clothing and the interest of potential suitors, this rivalry never really materializes. It may be the greenness of the show, but it all just comes off as petty bickering rather than substantive content for a play. These young performers do manage to capture the awkward sexuality that comes with youth. It is really awkward — almost painfully so.
If these petty squabbles weren’t mundane enough, enter John (Johnathan Nieves) the neighbor boy from LA who has formed a misconstrued friendship with Henry but is really sexually interested in the sister, Celia. The siblings are hardly competing for John’s interest in the same arena. Henry is quite clearly in the friend category, and Celia is so obnoxious to John it’s hard to see why he bothers. Rounding out the cast is John’s mother Jocelyn (Jaslene Gonzalez), an alcoholic thrice-divorced artist who seems to have more perspective than the lot of them. Curiously, John has an issue with how much his mother drinks but is happy enough to smoke pot in front of her on their porch.
The real intrigue surrounds Henry (not Celia), and the plot focuses on Henry’s questioning of gender identity. (The press material and the play use “he/his/him” throughout, however.) Henry constantly takes Celia’s clothes to wear. Henry hopes to look like Celia, and even declares to want to be her in order to garner the sexual interest of John. It’s this ambiguity that makes me squirm a little reading a press release that has quite clearly labeled Henry’s gender in binary terms and sexual orientation as gay. In this, the play seems to fall back onto old clichés about gay identity as gender inversion without attending to the wider and more complex ways in which gender is expressed (and discussed) in today’s society. It’s a problematic depiction that surrenders to stereotype and doesn’t really dig deep enough to find the complexity and nuances of the character’s journey.
In fact, there is very little build to the play as a whole, with the other characters also failing to develop. The parents find a place of acceptance (that didn’t really seem too difficult for them at all) and the siblings find a moment’s peace from their bickering. While it certainly is refreshing to see the parents react with gentle support to Henry’s revelation, it does leave the audience wondering what all the big fuss was about. This can be viewed as an achievement, but it is an ambivalent one at best, since the play does not really explore the ways in which gay sexuality and gender non-conformity are rooted in different emotions, have different politics, and face different obstacles. These are complex issues that the script lightly skims, reminding us all that it is only after each successive step that we can run the marathon to understanding.
Brian Healy’s exceptional lighting creates the layered leafy veneer of interlacing shadows that threaten the frail façade of these suburban houses. Similarly the sound design by Stephen Gawrit is just exquisite; youthful, naïve, and eerie all at once.
Director Devon De Mayo gives a valiant effort but even her deft touch isn’t enough to fix an under-baked script. However, it is refreshing to see characters that don’t have to justify the color of their skin by talking about their race, but just are people who live in the world with their issues. And I would be remiss not to say that the heart of this script is in the right place in its attempt to illuminate the difficulties of early stages of gender confusion. We need more stories about these issues especially in these trying political times when transgender and gender nonconforming people are subject to caricature, attack, and legislation directed against their daily lives. It is this context that makes the parents’ blasé reaction seem both politically naïve and too much about a future that will take struggle to achieve for everyone.