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Theatre in Review: O, Earth (Foundry Theatre/HERE)

Jess Barbagallo, Kristen Sieh. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

"A lot of things have happened since Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town," notes one of the characters in O, Earth. I'll say. For one thing, Emily Webb and George Gibbs, the young couple at the heart of Wilder's masterpiece, are having one of their little talks, in this case about George's baseball team. The conversation is a little clipped; George asks, "Emily, are you mad at me?" She replies, "No. I've decided to focus on useful things, and not waste my time on people who are just going to turn around and become dumb misogynist dumb assholes." A minute later, she adds, "Those guys are douchebags, George."

Well, as Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye says to his wife, "It's a new world, Golde." Wilder himself, likably played by Martin Moran, appears at the beginning of Casey Llewellyn's play announcing his intention of digging up a time capsule from the hill rising up from the deck of Adam Rigg's set, which contains a copy of the Our Town script. "I thought people, in the future, would be interested in how we lived. Here on earth, before the wars," he says. Instead, he unearths several shards of modern LGBT history, from the Stonewall riots to Ellen Degeneres' talk show.

There's something perfect about having the discreetly closeted Wilder watching on as a wildly reimagined version of his play opens into a panorama of events -- like same-sex marriage -- that he could never have imagined. As it happens, George and Emily aren't really the Grover's Corners type: He is a trans man and she can't stop questioning everything, including her sexual identity. Their romance is pretty much a disaster, sending them roaming far beyond their village in search of something better.

The pit stops include The Ellen Degeneres Show, where the guests are Spencer and Duncan, a lightly fictionalized version of the gay couple whose marriage proposal, accompanied by a flash mob in the lumber aisle of a Home Depot, went viral, racking up more than 13 million views. The author has merciless fun with this pair: "I could see us there getting paint chips, carpet samples," Spencer says. "It was actually tiki torches," interjects Duncan in steely tones, offering a preview of the marital discord to come. After the episode, Ellen, bored to tears by the airheaded couple's self-adoring normality, tries to engage her wife, Portia DeRossi, with her fears about it all: "It's like thirty years ago we couldn't even be. And now we can't be weird....It just feels like we could end up in an internment camp or something in another 30 years. Or five years. There's all this backlash, against abortions or women or whatever."

This conversation reaches a dead end all too quickly, because marriage has turned Portia, an actress of some note, into the kind of aimless, wine-swilling hausfrau who ends up on a Bravo reality series. ("I'm famous, too," she tells a visitor. "Remember Ally McBeal?") Portia plays hosts to Emily, who, having escaped the world of Our Town's theatrical conventions, is thrilled to pick up a real fork and eat real food. Meanwhile, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, transgender activists and veterans of both the Stonewall Riots and the theatre group Hot Peaches, return from their untimely graves to present a talk show called Pay It No Mind -- and their first guest is Ellen. "Now tell us," Marsha asks Ellen. "What is going on with the movement today?" Noting that she is now married to Portia, Ellen adds, "About fifteen years ago I came out as a lesbian on my sitcom and it immediately got canceled. I mean, no one would literally pick up my phone calls. I didn't work for three years. I had been a big star before then. So that was a nightmare." Sylvia intervenes: "She asked you about the movement. There still is a movement, right?" Meanwhile, the Stage Manager who, as in Wilder, presides over the action, here played by the black actress Donnetta Lavinia Grays, frets, "I feel invisible. I'm just here, helping tell this story about these white people."

Llewellyn is plenty worried, too: In O, Earth, the gay rights movement has been sheared off from a larger agenda of left-wing issues, and has also become a bastion of white privilege. Sylvia recalls how the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade (the original name for the Gay Pride Parade) included a stop at the women's jail on Sixth Avenue where Black Panthers were incarcerated. In her view, such issues as universal health care, transgender rights, reproductive rights, and the environment have been kicked to the curb by a flood of squeaky-clean, middle-class gays bent on opening gift registries at Restoration Hardware. It's not for nothing that Ellen has a nightmare vision of the Spencer-Duncan honeymoon, in which the hard-drinking, meat-eating pair sleep around and hit a reef while snorkeling, creating their own oil spill.

The author makes some stinging points, and they would wound more deeply if O, Earth were sharper, funnier, and more focused than the often sloppily written free-for-all now running at HERE. There's plenty of imagination at work, but the laughs are surprisingly few; the author wields a blunt instrument, often suborning satire to speeches that exhort the audience to political action. If ever there was a writer for whom the adage "Show, don't tell" could be profitably employed, Llewellyn is the one.

Interestingly, she never acknowledges that, for the first time, transgender rights is a national talking point thanks to such celebrities as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, not to mention the hoo-ha in several states about unisex bathrooms. Yes, the discussion has a long, long way to go, but still. For all these reasons, O, Earth sometimes comes across as an elaborate exercise in hand-wringing. The title is taken from a line of Emily's in Our Town ("Oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you"), but it could also be a secularized version of a line from the Book of Jeremiah: "O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord." For "the Lord" substitute "the progressive platform."

Still, under Dustin Wills' direction, a fine cast makes the most of the script's better-written sequences. Moran brings a real sweetness to Wilder, especially in a tender, touching scene in which he finds in George the other self he has been seeking all along. In Jess Barbagallo's performance, George's search for happiness also acquires a real poignancy. Kristen Sieh's Emily is admirably tough-minded, willing to risk her safe, secure existence for a more authentic life. Grays makes a most efficient and affable Stage Manager. Moe Angelos' Ellen impersonation is eerily accurate, and, as Portia, Emily Davis is a convincingly sad presence, despite having to wrestle with some of the play's weakest speeches. Julienne "Mizz June" Brown and Cecilia Gentili are enormously appealing as Marsha and Sylvia. Ato Blankson-Wood and Tommy Heleringer have plenty of wicked fun with the roles of Spencer and Duncan.

Rigg's extraordinarily wide set encompasses the previously mentioned hill, the set of the Ellen Show, and the kitchen where Portia holds forth; Barbara Samuels' lighting reconfigures the space as needed. Montana Blanco's costumes, from Wilder's three-piece suit to Ellen's blazer-and-tennis-shoe combinations to Spencer and Duncan's almost painfully chic outfits, are amusing acts of social commentary. Janie Bullard's sound design -- from whales to crickets to disco anthems -- is thoroughly professional. Surprisingly, there is no video design credit, so it is unclear who did the ultra-wide imagery of the opening of Ellen's show and the photos of early New York gay parades, among other things.

O, Earth, like Our Town, ends in a graveyard, where everyone is vogueing to Donna Summer's rendition of "MacArthur Park." It's a powerful image -- sad, funny, and thoroughly original. Llewellyn's inventive play, which, all too often, is undone by its own earnestness, could use more moments like it. -- David Barbour

(1 February 2016)

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