Director Cody Estle and playwright Philip Dawkins laugh and vibe like old friends and frequent collaborators, finishing each other's sentences and feeding off of each other's energy. Their camaraderie bodes well for The Gentleman Caller, Dawkins' new play about a fateful encounter between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge. Directed by Estle, the world premiere opens April 6 at Edgewater's Raven Theatre.
As Dawkins and Estle explain it, Gentleman Caller brings a queer lens to the lives of Inge ( Bus Stop, Picnic ) and Williams ( Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie. ) At the heart of Dawkins' play is an examination of queerness, history, art and the intersection of all three.
Commissioned by Raven, Dawkins is the author of such acclaimed dramas as Charm and The Homosexuals. He wrote Gentleman Caller with an eye on Raven's longstanding history of producing classics from the mid-20th century, many Williams' works among them. Dawkins wanted to bring contemporary relevance to Williams and Inge's work, without erasing their roots in the past.
"That is our American history, that's Raven's history. ( H )ow do I acknowledge that and say let's move further into today with that conversation?," Dawkins asked.
Dawkins' commission was sparked by Raven's founders, Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro. Estle served as Associate Artistic Director for years during their tenure, including when The Gentleman Caller was in its earliest discussions. Menendian and Montemurro stepped down last summer, when Estle was named Raven's new artistic director. The Gentleman Caller will be Estle's first production in the position.
In an era when queer legacies are bring forged by today's artists, The Gentleman Caller offers a reexamination of history. The play explores the relationship between creativity and desire, whether that desire is suppressed or expressed.
Like the collages and shadow boxes of artist Joseph Cornell, the boxy set for The Gentleman Caller evokes far more than a simple structure of right angles.
"What does it mean to be inside of that box and what does it mean to step out of that box, be seen or not seen?" Estle said. Dawkins likens the set to Cornell's evocative pieces: "They're like these shadowboxes, and life happens inside them."
Raven isn't the first to see Inge through a queer lens. Last summer, Will Davis' gender-defying production of Picnic at the ( now-closed ) American Theatre Company earned heaps of critical acclaim. Both ATC's Picnic and Raven's The Gentleman Caller approach Inge's closeted queerness, but in drastically different ways. Dawkins detailed the core of his approach:
"This is a room where as far as Inge knows, there are only queer men in this room. He would not say queer, there are only 'inverts' in this room, there are only men who are 'afflicted' in this room. He would have used any of cultural shaming language around that existed to make him feel bad.
"That culture of pushing queer people down [still] exists still but doesn't quite permeate in the way that it was inescapable for people like Inge and Williams," Dawkins said. "If you weren't of a constitution like Williams where you could drink enough or 'art enough' to where you could tell the world to go take a flying leap, then you were stuck to being constantly pounded down. Where could you go to escape it?" Dawkins added.
"We have seen often this story of being met with persecution on the outside, but we see less often the stories where the antagonism is on the inside," Dawkins said. "When we're the only people here and we are the only queer people how do we get rid of that antagonism? How do we leave it outside? Can we? In the way that I don't think queer communities can exist without pride I also wonder if they can exist without shame," he said.
"For these two men in particular it has to do with how necessary queerness is [to] artistry," Dawkins said. There's a line in the play that asks where a heterosexual could have written either the Bible or Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Passed. Dawkins thinks the answer is 'no."
Queer folx are "constantly positioning themselves against social constructs," he explained. "To me, that's the heart of queerness," he said. "Whether you're a woman sleeping with a woman or a trans* person, if you are positioning yourself against the social constructs that have been put on you, then you are a queer person moving through the world in a queer way. And that lends itself to an artistic world."
The Gentleman Caller runs April 6-May 27 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets are $38-$41, and $15 for students, seniors, vets, active military. For more information, call 773-338-2177 or go to RavenTheatre.com .