Home by Dark sheds no light on family secrets

Autobiography can be dangerous territory for creative writers. Of course, many writers use their own life stories to some extent; reality provides all kinds of useful insights and evocative bits and bobs of memory. But to work as a script or novel, truth needs to be rejiggered, and it helps to come at it sideways, to employ the dreaming, half-conscious parts of the self and remain open to meanings that aren't necessarily obvious and can't be reached through reason alone. That's the way to bring the silvery great whales close enough to the surface so that their shape and movement can be sensed.

The events in Home by Dark, currently receiving its world premiere at Curious Theater, are very close to local playwright Terry Dodd's heart. When he was a student at the University of Colorado in the 1970s, living in a loft above a garage, he received a nighttime visit from his state trooper father, Dale, who'd heard that his son was gay and wanted to know if it was true. A fraught and passionate conversation ensued. The play is set later in time, in the 1980s. Here the son is named Mark, the father remains Dale, and the conversation covers a lot of ground, alluding to Dale's own unhappy marriage to Mark's alcoholic mother, Mark's student life and his two loves: Peter, who died of AIDS, and Dan, who loved him enough to formally propose in a restaurant and offer a ring, but who eventually was unable to face his own homosexuality and left for California.

Dodd is a skilled playwright, and sentence by sentence, he knows how to make dialogue sound natural and intimate, weaving in artful repetition, backtracking, tension-breaking non sequiturs, moments of humor or weariness. But this ninety-minute play still doesn't feel like a real conversation. It's too relentlessly focused on issues surrounding homosexuality that we, as a society, have already chewed on endlessly. It feels as if Dodd has unpacked all his thoughts, ideas and reactions from the last three decades on the topic here: society's prejudice against gay people and the pain it causes; Ronald Reagan's refusal to tackle the AIDS epidemic during his presidency; the canard that gay people are incapable of forming stable unions; the old psycho-babble about homosexuality being caused by a combination of overbearing mother and absent father; the fact that movie idol Rock Hudson was actually gay but spent his entire career hiding it; the father's inability to understand that homosexuality isn't a matter of choice. There's reference to a horrific murder reminiscent of that of Matthew Shepard, in which a couple of pick-ups beat a young man to death in a motel room. Twice the father is so revulsed by his son's comments that he leaps at him as if to hit him; twice he thinks the better of it.

Michael McNeill (left) and Jake Walker in Home by Dark.
Michael McNeill (left) and Jake Walker in Home by Dark.

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But you don't really think there's going to be any hitting, and you can't tell if Dale has been violent in the past: This character just won't come together. Sometimes he's obtuse, sometimes empathetic — okay, he's a complex man who's afraid for his son's health and happiness and grieves for the end of his own bloodline (no acknowledgement here that gay couples often have children) — but you just can't see the reason for the changes on the stage in front of you. Jake Walker makes Mark a little sweet, a little sulky and fairly self-absorbed, as most twenty-somethings are; you find yourself longing for a bit more self-awareness from him. I'm not sure how an actor could pull off Dale, and though he has some good moments, Michael McNeill essentially doesn't.

Stanislavski famously advised actors to break their scenes into beats and ask themselves what the characters' goals were — what they wanted — for each beat. It's good advice for playwrights, too. Home by Dark would feel tighter and less aimless if we could tell what Mark and Dale need from each other — not in a big, general way, but specifically, moment by moment. As it is, there's no forward momentum, no suspense, nothing that needs knitting up or working out, nothing that ultimately does or doesn't get resolved. So the emotional scenes seem to arise for no particular reason, and though Dale's climactic speech about the incident that gives the play its name is beautifully written and well-delivered, it doesn't accomplish anything dramatically — much less rescue this talky, static evening.

 
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