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A REMINDER OF THE STRUGGLE: The revival of ‘The Lambda’ documents gay rights at TheatreNOW

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Just because the struggle for civil rights has succeeded does not mean we should ignore why it is such a landmark accomplishment in our society.

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So what’s happening with Stonewall Democrats?” I recently asked a friend I see too rarely.

HISTORICAL RELEVANCE: TheatreNOW presents a retelling of ‘The Lambda,’ serving up a heartrending story alongside dinner. Courtesy photo

HISTORICAL RELEVANCE: TheatreNOW presents a retelling of ‘The Lambda,’ serving up a heartrending story alongside dinner. Courtesy photo

“Well, there’s not really a need anymore. We won,” he responded. “I wish I could say that for more causes.”

I kept replaying our conversation in my head as I watched “The Lambda” at TheatreNOW. Written by Steve Cooper, with music by Brad Moranz, “The Lambda” is a period piece about gay life in Wilmington in the 1970s. If anything, the major takeaway from the show is just how far society has come in the last 40 years.

Originally produced by Opera House Theatre Company in 1992, “The Lambda” has been revived a couple of times, most recently in 2000. I admit I have wanted to see it since the original run. Alas, I was 11 when the show premiered, and I lived out of town for the 2000 revival. Was it worth the wait? Well, in many ways, yes.

Cooper’s script follows the lives of regulars at The Lambda, a gay bar on the Carolina Beach boardwalk. The resident barflies include Ken (Beau Mumford) and George  (Tony Britt-Kirkegaard); a committed couple out to socialize for the evening, Myron (Andrew Liguori) and Nick (Gabe Wood); Rhonda (Penelope Grover), the token lesbian bartender; and of course the headliner, Joey, a drag queen with multiple costumes and monikers, played by Brad Mercier. Into their midst wanders Eric (Chad Lewis) who visits a gay bar for the first time.

In Act 1 we get a setup for some sort of storyline: Eric is stunned to see Joey in drag—the former varsity football player and his tormentor in high school. Really? Yes, really. Mercier is a good performer—and as his character is quick to point out, he’s unlike many queens who lip sync to other people’s music. In the last couple of years Mercier has become quite the rising star of musical theatre. His voice is lovely, so add in dance skills and a true craft for acting and he offers a pretty alluring combo. He completely sells “Charmin,” a song about meeting the man of his dreams in the men’s room—and then losing his phone number. All the while, he dances around in a headdress made from toilet-paper rolls. Though my favorite of all his songs was his send-up to Anita Bryant, former Miss America-turned-OJ spokeswoman and anti-gay crusader. Trust me, after this number, no one will think of kumquats the same way again.

Eric is just as mystified by Joey as he is about Ken, the object of his desire, who is ignoring him completely following their short-lived affair. How can he love someone who barely acknowledges he is alive? Lewis’ desperation and confusion is pretty believable, so is his total lack of self-esteem after an adolescence of extreme bullying.

Mumford’s Ken is a great Cooper character, who writes reminders about what we see on the surface not matching  what’s happening on the inside. Mumford gives us the young party boy prepared to be adored. With aviator glasses and beard, he strikes perfect poses at the tables and bar. The manipulative abuser who lurks within must be an interesting role to play, especially for the rare moment when Mumford drops his mask to show us what is really driving all that awful beauty. 

His one defender in the club appears to be George: a loner, who’s wondering why this life happened to him and what the next disappointment will be. George is our bridge to the past. He doesn’t trust or believe in the pride movement sparked after the Stonewall riots. He recalls instead the police-instigated hate crime at Miss Minnie’s (an unofficial gay club in the back ally of an African-American neighborhood in Charleston) in the 1930s. If the audience doesn’t tear up when Britt-Kirkegaard serves up his story, they are made of stone. He is beautifully focused on his grief and oblivious to the strides forward in society which surround him already.   

The humanizing story for Act 1 is that of Myron and Nick. I thought it would be the driving storyline of the show. Though they occupy a lot of it, their conflict never actually escalates to a climax or is resolved. Actually, none of the storylines develop fully. They’re more like vignettes that come in and out of focus—like a kaleidoscope. Ligouri’s rather frazzled, not-quite-functional Myron is the foil to Wood’s reserved, private Nick.

If Wood reminded me of anyone, it was the protagonist from Andrew Tobias’ “Best Little Boy in the World” memoirs (his character even paraphrases part of Tobias’ first book at one point in Act 2). In a world of flamboyant youth, Wood’s reserve becomes almost a beacon: dependability, strength and actions, not words so much. His own journey of discovery is a tough one, and his monologue about his place in his deceased lover’s life, is, again, heartrending and delivered almost like an AA speech: “Here is the truth, and I don’t like it anymore than you do.”

Act 1 and 2 feel like two different shows.  In Act 1 we see the beginning of a story brewing: Interesting exposition, characterization and backstory flesh out the action, and then somewhere along the way Act 2 derails into confusion. With the song “One in Ten” a confused combination of group therapy conspires into an advocacy commercial. The script clearly has lost its way: Is this a story? Is this written for the choir? Or is this a response to Anita Bryant and an attempt to  bridge a gap with the so-called mainstream world? It surprised me because I am pretty familiar with Cooper’s work (many of the Pied Piper scripts are his, Big Dawg produced another of his musicals in the mid-’90s, and my first children’s theatre show was written by Cooper). He usually has a pretty good handle on story structure and construction, so the derailment is a little bit puzzling. Sure, it’s entertaining, still, but not as strongly crafted as I expected.   

Music director and accompanist Linda Markas has an unusual set of challenges working with a score transcribed from a cassette tape. Moranz’a score is a little surprising. I have to wonder, given some of the unusual choices in the music, if certain songs were composed for specific performers, which may make the job more awkward for anyone else to step into.

TheatreNOW changed their seating plan to make the stage bar and audience seating blend, to create more of a mesh between the two. So when servers move through the crowd with refills and dinner, they blend with the show. I have stopped eating lunch before TheatreNOW productions because I love Chef Gordon’s concoctions. Her truffle dressing for the salad might have sealed our fate. My date got the roast chicken, and though he liked it, he kept stealing bites from my roasted butternut squash lasagna. It was so perfectly layered and textured, I felt a twinge of guilt for my lasagna never coming out quite so well at home. I speared one of his portobello mushrooms over roasted shallot bread pudding, and asked what he thought of the show. After all, he watched his brother come out in the early ‘60s in a small rural community. I figured this must hit home. He nodded and commented how grateful he was that this is now a period piece and not a contemporary comment.

He’s right. “The Lambda” is relevant because it makes it real how far the civil rights movement has come in the last few years.  Nick’s monologue about his lover’s death and aftermath tells a very true and, unfortunately, common story. But now, with legal protection, that is not the scenario. However, such recognition and protection is only in its infancy. Ten years ago, Nick’s story was a daily occurrence. Just because the struggle for civil rights has succeeded does not mean we should ignore why it is such a landmark accomplishment in our society. “The Lambda” puts very human faces and voices to the struggle and reminds us how, occasionally, we do learn from our mistakes and right the wrongs. Unfortunately, there are still so many wrongs to be addressed.

The Lambda
Jan. 8 – Feb. 12, 7 p.m., Fri.- Sat.; 7 p.m., Feb. 13-14, Sat.-Sun.
Tickets: $20-$40
Valentine’s Weekend (Feb. 13-14): $50
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.

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