BWW Review: TEA & SYMPATHY is Strong with Eye Opening Emotions at Birmingham Festival Theatre
With Pride Week approaching, Birmingham Festival Theatre is on time with offering an emotional and striking production of Robert Anderson's 1953 drama "Tea and Sympathy." Set at an all boys' school in the early 1950's, the show tackles the fear, insecurity and the eventual anger that people under persecution face. The teenage boys attending the school are written with an amped jocular rambunctiousness. The carnal behavior lurking behind the boy's clean crisp khaki's and sweater vests is a starter kit for toxic masculinity.
Tom Lee (Blake Tanner) is a student at the school who is growing popular for not fitting in with the rest of the pack. Tom's sensitive character and appearance are fuel for the school to label him an effeminate "odd horse." He soon becomes a target of unchallenged bullying from his peers. The headmaster of the school is Bill Reynolds. (Josh Roberts). He is a "guy's guy", and a rugged outdoorsman /mentor to the boys at the school. Reynolds is married to Laura (Leah Luker) is the submissive Eve to his misogynistic Adam. She is numb from this haze of a marriage that this fraying from lack of communication and affection. Laura offers support to all the boys. Tom however is very special young man to her. She sees his true potential and enjoys the time they share together bonding over art, music and literature. Tom feels free to be himself when with Laura. He has the same effect on her. His young heart has begun to grow fond of Laura's affection and attention. Laura is also captivated by Tom's spirit and goodness.
Conflict arrives as a scandal is introduced that rocks the campus. A male teacher has been found out have been engaging in nude swimming trips with a student that is discovered to be Tom. In an instant, Tom is swept up into a torrid wave of condemnation, anxiety, depression, and fear. His classmates, Headmaster Bill and Toms friend Al are breaking away from him. Laura rises to be the only person coming to his defense. The edges of Laura and Bill snap like old rubber bands. The tension heat up until things begin to boil over with unexpected results. Even though this play was written in 1953. The subject of homophobia, intolerance and abuse is a mirror to today's headlines. Robert Anderson's strong writing gives a bitter taste to those who condemn, judge, and abuse. The reasons behind the actions become unveiled as the story boils with tension.
Director Sandra Taylor leads a committed cast who pour their body and souls into a very emotional performance. I asked her to share why she chose to bring "Tea and Sympathy" to life. "This is my favorite play and it's my favorite because of the message. The story tackles stereotypes, bullying, being gay and straight. Manly and feminine and what all that means. I think we don't hear that message enough. I think it's relevant I think it's important and so beautifully written." She adds that even though she adores this cast's commitment and spirit, this was not a comical process. Raw emotions had to be tapped. "We didn't come into rehearsals and laugh and play. We came to do the work and work hard." Boy does it show. Stand out, layered performances are provided by David Seale as Tom's stern father Herbert, Rachel Pike as Laura's boozy bestie Lilly, and Chance Novalis as Tom's friend Al.
Josh Roberts gives the abusive Bill a sinister and abrasive aura that make your blood rise. "Bill is a complete 180 from me. I'm a happy go lucky guy. To go into this role, I've actually had to separate myself physically from the rest of the cast in preparation backstage. They're all joking around and having fun, as you usually do. But I am pacing the halls to get into that Bill mindset. It also takes time to get myself out of it so I don't take that home with me."
Leah Luker gives life to the nurturing and sweet Laura. She shares her experience opening the door into this role. "It's weird to play these characters from this period in the 1950's. It's a very strange thing because they are so different from us. Robert Anderson was really ahead of his time. The show is about the effect of toxic masculinity on everybody, and how it destroys everyone in its wake. It's hard to bring a character like Laura to life when you're questioning how is she making all of these choices? We had very in-depth discussions on how Laura and Bill met, why she stayed, and why is she so desperate to make this work."
Luker and Roberts hard work pays off. The performance holds many subtle nuances in body language, and deliveries that convey the backstory of these two characters, which is not written into the script. The actors are able to tap into that history. Adding realism to this complex relationship that is raw and unsettling. They provide many signature fill in the blank moments that if you have history of abusive in a relationship can spot. As both the abuser and the abused. The result is highly compelling theatre.
Blake Tanner conveys Tom with an innocence of a brave young man with a tender heart on his sleeve. "It was important for me for Tom to be an innocent. He is just someone who is truly open. He's the most comfortable one in his own skin than anyone in the show. I think because he has all these other schoolboys around him. They bully him. They tease him. Even in the case of Al, his one friend. He is scared of what will happen to him from rooming with someone who is seen as queer. All those things come from a lot of insecurities in others that Tom is all right with. He knows who he is. He has pain associated with it because it disappoints his father being the object of ridicule. Even then he still knows who he is. It's a confidence in despair. No matter how much terrible stuff is thrown his way. He knew who he was. Up until he was accused of being queer. Which is something that he wasn't. And from then on he had so much doubt. It just came in and broke him down. From there is just all honesty."
If you are sensitive to domestic abuse, this show puts its finger right on its beating jugular. There are many strong moments that bring tension, tears, rage and laughs. This is a wonderfully layered production that resonates with you long after you have seen it.
Tea and Sympathy by Robert Anderson
Directed by Sandra Taylor
Birmingham Festival Theatre
1901 1/2 11th Ave S
Birmingham, AL 35205
May 30 - June 15
Thurs - Sat 8pm / Sun matinee: 2:00
Tickets - $25 / Student rate with valid student ID- $10
For more information: www.bftonline.org or (205) 933-2383
Photo Credit: Steven Ross