Step right in

USM's spot-on view of '50s angst
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  November 11, 2009

 THEATER_teasympathy_main

SIDE BY SIDE But deeply intertwined. Photo: TROY BENNETT

Laura Reynolds (Heather Scamman), the young wife of a schoolmaster at a New England boys' boarding school in the '50s, has been advised about her proper role there: "Interested bystander." She should offer a friendly ear to the boys who board in her house, without involving herself in their lives, and should certainly avoid any emotional attachments. But one student, Tom Lee (Joe Bearor), has far too much sensitivity and aesthetic sense to get on well amid so much team spirit and testosterone. Out of place herself, Laura comes to feel more than mere interest in him, in Robert Anderson's 1953 Tea and Sympathy. The University of Southern Maine's production, directed by William Steele, delivers everything I hope to see in a professional production, most impressive of which are its breathtakingly nuanced performances of characters in many layers of conflict.

At the heart of the play's many fraught relationships is Tom, an 18-year-old with long hair (at least by '50s standards), a fondness for French folk songs, and a history of playing female roles in the school's theater club. The buzz-cut athletes give him grief, and Laura's husband Bill (Patrick Molloy) also has it in for him. But things really degenerate when a young teacher is fired after having gone swimming with him, and rumors and witch-hunts reign.

In Bearor's sure hands, the young outcast is candid, self-possessed, and immensely appealing. Bearor affectingly captures the spirit and demeanor of a young man who has learned neither the acquired filters and rigidities of his elders, nor the self-conscious postures of his peers. Listen for the honesty of his sudden, forthright laugh; watch as at Laura's mention of the name "Grace" (his schoolmates' taunt), his face registers hurt and dismay, not bitterness or anger. The openness and self-awareness of this boy are uncommon, and Bearor makes him both credible and remarkably endearing.

To others who come in and out of the boarding house (which is a handsome open design by Charles Kading, the walls lined with Bill's black-and-white team photos), Tom's guilelessness is sometimes an invitation, sometimes a threat, sometimes a rebuke. Laura's growing warmth toward him is a lovely, aching evolution to behold; Scamman makes beautiful work of the woman's opening, her need, and her compassion. Her deeply insecure husband, on the other hand, is affronted by their friendship: Watch the excellent Molloy's body language shift, when they discuss Tom, from cultivated affability to a charged rigidity. And although Tom's roommate Al (Sage Landry, with great wit and subtlety) sees what side his bread is buttered on, his discernment and empathy haunt him.

One way of arraying all these characters is by the relative comfort of each in his own skin. By this measure, Tom's confident and well-meaning but utterly insensitive father Herb scores high, and in portraying him, Joe Mcleod does fine work showing the man's genuine bafflement about his son. In contrast, we have Molloy's Bill Reynolds, whose mechanical poise suggests great inner unease, yet who scores quite high in a certain sensitivity: He knows exactly what will hurt whom, and why, and uses it. Although both Herb and Bill take actions that distress Tom, they illustrate an important distinction between plain ignorance and the sort of cruelty that springs only from insecurity and a buried, festering self-loathing.

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