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Theatre in Review: The Pattern at Pendarvis (New Dog Theatre Company/HERE)

Lawrence Merritt, Gregory Jensen, David Murray Jaffe. Photo: Dennis Cahlo

The Pattern at Pendarvis opens a window on an obscure and fascinating bit of twentieth-century American gay history -- and, by extension, poses a probing question about how such history is recorded. So much research has been conducted on the urban enclaves (like Greenwich Village or San Francisco's Castro District) and resorts (Fire Island or Provincetown) where gay communities were nurtured -- and ultimately, a political movement was born -- but what about the gays and lesbians who stayed closer to home? Was it possible to attain a measure of happiness and/or achievement within the confines of the closet? Playwright Dean Gray supplies an answer in his account of two real-life men who formed a partnership in rural Wisconsin, living lives of distinction while remaining inside boundaries that ultimately proved to be profoundly limiting.

In the early 1930s, Edgar Hellum and Robert Neal formed a partnership that would transform the community of Mineral Point, Wisconsin. A century before, the town had been settled largely by Cornish families drawn to the area for the opportunity to work in the lead-mining industry; most of them built limestone cottages that closely resembled their homes in England. By the post-World War I years, most had fallen into disrepair. Hellum and Neal set out to restore one structure, then several more. They also created a garden that became an attraction in its own right. And, to pay the bills, they opened a restaurant that could fairly be called a proto-farm-to-table experiment, serving "peasant food" based on Cornish cuisine. It drew a large and surprisingly glamorous clientele; an early supporter was Duncan Hines, who, before he became a trademark on cake-mix boxes, was an influential food journalist. Today, Pendarvis, the name of the compound of restored buildings, is a tourist attraction maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Of course, Hellum and Neal were lovers, a fact even now downplayed on the official Pendarvis website. In his play, Gray dispatches Rich, a young writer, to interview Edgar for a book highlighting the contributions of gay men to the Arts and Crafts Movement. It is 1997; Edgar is 91 and physically frail, if still mentally sharp. (Bob is long dead.) The first part of the encounter is so loaded with euphemisms and the unspoken that it practically requires a secret decoder. Bob had a more glamorous past, having worked in London and the US with Syrie Maugham, the noted interior decorator and perpetually estranged wife of Somerset. Both men had older "mentors": Edgar was introduced, by an "artistic" lady friend, to a man named Ralph, who taught him about antiques and woodworking; Bob's friend, Mr. Gundry, cooked meals for the young men once a week. Gundry was a "country gentleman" with a "little cut mustache" who would open the door of his house precisely at six in the evening, click his heels, and welcome his guests. There's an especially telling anecdote about a couple of female visitors from Iowa who decide to marry off Edgar and Bob to the women of their choosing. As Edgar says, a little hesitantly, "They just thought -- thought it would take women -- well, back in those days -- like in Mineral Point, a lot of people, the farthest they'd ever been from home was Madison or Milwaukee, and then, just once or twice. They didn't know what was going on in the world."

Indeed, not; and even in 1997, some are still trying to keep it quiet. In the first half of The Pattern at Pendarvis, the interview is attended by Norm, a local, who, with his wife, looks after Edgar and does his best to keep the conversation from veering into matters he deems too personal. Through his endless kibitzing, we get a sense of a community that wants to celebrate Edgar and Bob for their achievements while keeping the truth about them under wraps. It isn't until Norm is exiled that Edgar feels free to speak candidly and the most poignant revelations come to light: The men lived under a constant cloud of suspicion, so, Edgar says, "We kind of divorced ourselves from the town." Instead, they went about their business, living with and loving each other while refusing to acknowledge or discuss the truth about their life together. "I learned something a long time ago," Edgar says. "If you want someone to never know something, never tell them. Simple as that. And that's what we all did." The policy extended to themselves: Their inability to discuss their feelings sets the stage for the sad winding-down of their relationship in later years, after they surrendered the Pendarvis project to the historical society.

As indicated above, The Pattern at Pendarvis suffers from a certain awkwardness of construction, and, in its later passages, it doesn't entirely avoid the trap of preachiness, but Edgar is a fascinating character brought to life in all his evasive, cranky, poignant glory by Lawrence Merritt. A Broadway dancer in the 1960s and '70s, Merritt is also a quietly astonishing actor, erasing any difference between himself and Edgar. He invests each of the character's memories with a bedrock reality that makes the play's question-and-answer format seem more urgent than it otherwise might. There's an implied drama in the way Edgar abandons his tantalizing, but not entirely honest, answers, gradually coming clean about his long-ago love affair. One of the best things about Gray's script is its appreciation of Edgar as a pioneer, bravely staring down those who would condemn him and Bob, combined with the understanding that time passed him by. "We weren't a disgrace; we knew how to act," he says, later adding that, in the future, gays will "come into their own on merit. Their sex life has nothing to do with it. They have a makeup, in their genes, to be artistic, to be constructive." Try floating that idea at the next Pride parade.

Gregory Jensen gives a very sensitive interpretation of Rich, who exists mostly to ask questions. He brings more to the role than may be on the page and is particularly amusing when fending off Norm's intrusions. Norm is more a dramatic device than a fully realized character, but David Murray Jaffe capably conveys his anxiety over the prospect of Edgar being outed. To his credit, the director, Joseph Megel, lets the drama unfold in its own way, trusting it to deliver its considerable emotional impact.

The production design is simple but effective. Daniel Ettinger's set places a small arrangement of furniture against a cut-out bookcase, and Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes are appropriate for all three characters. Joseph Amodei does triple duty as lighting, sound, and video designer; his work in the first two departments is solid, but his video -- ghostly white imagery projected onto black walls -- adds enormously to a play about the weight of the past: Among other things, we see the cottages, Edgar and Bob in their youth, and a newspaper story about Edgar that puts a heartbreaking period to the action.

The Pattern at Pendarvis reminds us that, for all the work that has been done in recent years, there is so much more to learn about the LGBTQ people whose lives have unfolded on the margins of the standard histories. Will Fellows, whose book A Passion to Preserve provided the source material for the play, is also the author of Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest, also adapted by Gray. The two are working on a project called Gay Bar '55, set in 1950s Los Angeles. Kudos to them for adding so much to our knowledge, and doing so in such honest, powerful fashion. -- David Barbour

(30 July 2018)

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