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THEATER REVIEW The Gentleman Caller
By Brian Kirst

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Playwright: Phillip Dawkins

At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets:; $38-$46. Runs through: May 27

Last year, American Theater Company delivered a powerful, experimental look at William Inge's Pulitzer Prize winning Picnic. This production examined the underlying sexuality in Inge's work, seemingly uncovering multiple layers of queerness.

Phillip Dawkins' The Gentleman Caller, being given its world premiere at Raven Theater, examines Inge's homosexuality with a more direct approach. A fictionalized examination of the relationship between Inge and fellow illustrious playwright Tennessee Williams, this work presents the two as brilliant yet troubled gay men who were both compelled to give voice to the realities of the human condition through beautiful works of art.

Acknowledged as a real-life mentor to Inge, the Tennessee Williams presented here in 1944 is on the cusp of receiving worldwide fame for The Glass Menagerie. Naturally, he doesn't know this yet and is, insecurely, eager for any publicity that he can get. Thus, Inge, the arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times, has invited Williams to his garden apartment to conduct an interview for the paper. Drinks flow, sexual tensions flare and the frightened, uptight Inge is encouraged to more fully explore his true artistic leanings by the flamboyant, devil may care Williams. Months later, Williams is joined in Chicago by Inge. Haunted by the enormous success of his play, he hopes to seduce the reporter in his messy hotel room. Inge, overcome by Williams' talent, cannot comprehend such a physical altercation. His reluctance, ultimately, allows Williams to lead the frightened young man towards his desired path—the chance to become a brilliant and influential writer, himself.

Decorating his script with glorious bits of humor, Dawkins undercuts the self-loathing of Inge and the drunken follies of Williams with poetic monologues that examine the circumstances of their most intimate desires and their deep-rooted fears. Inge's childhood remembrance of the torturous cruelties of some small town boys, in particular, is hauntingly beautiful and compellingly grotesque. Nicely, as the year in the play turns to 1945, Williams' remark that "the future is here" seems a hopeful foreshadowing to our present day when most of our young gay men can be themselves without having to hide behind whiskey bottles and twisted regret.

Meanwhile, director Cody Estle works with an obvious love for the piece. He also, nicely, delivers some truly erotic yet tasteful stagecraft involving his two devoted actors here. This work is highlighted by Rudy Galvan's often giddy yet occasionally desperate Williams and Curtis Edward Jackson's emotionally taut yet multileveled Inge. These two, compellingly, wrestle with their demons—and each other—on a couple of period perfect sets, brilliantly designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec.

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