Baltimore’s Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre kicked off its 50th season with a well-staged mounting of the Robert Anderson classic Tea and Sympathy. Ms. Herman, the person for whom the theater is named, appeared as one of the play’s principal characters, Laura Reynolds, at the Spotlighters back in 1968.
Tea and Sympathy opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on September 30, 1953 and ran successfully for 712 performances under the direction of Elia Kazan. In 1956 it was made into a movie that was directed by Vincent Minelli.
Over a half century later, Director Fuzz Roark does a splendid job of capturing Anderson’s pioneering message through the performances of the excellent cast in the Spotlighters’ production.
Set in a 1953 New England boys’ boarding school, the play’s theme, applicable today, is school bullying, especially if a student is perceived to be gay with the key word being “perceived.” Hardly any gay student would dare to come out in such an environment, particularly during a point in time when homophobia was prevalent.
In Tea and Sympathy, the student is Tom Lee, played earnestly and passionately by Justin Johnson. Rumors about Tom’s sexuality are rampant because he is a sensitive person and eschews the macho-jock ethos that dominates the students and the male faculty members.
Instead, Tom wears his hair long, enjoys music and drama and was readying to play a female role in an upcoming school play. His detractors have judged him to be a “fairy” based on this stereotype as well as by his mannerisms and walk.
Fueling and perhaps validating the suspicion, Tom was spotted swimming naked at the dunes with another teacher, David Harris (Jose Teneza). Tom credibly and strongly denied any wrongdoing. “Nothing HAPPENED!” he implores. The gossip spreads wildly throughout the school, affecting Tom. The audience was left wondering why he was with Mr. Harris under those circumstances in the first place.
Isolated from his peers and faculty members, Tom’s only source of comfort is the wife of a teacher, Laura Reynolds, played expertly by Karia Ferry. Bucking the advice repeated by the fun-loving headmaster’s wife (Lisa Libowitz) that "you have to be an interested bystander...all you're supposed to do is every once in a while give the boys a little tea and sympathy," Laura immerses herself in Tom’s plight, which becomes the emotional center of the play.
Skeptical about the rumors, she rebukes her domineering and hyper-masculine husband Bill (Todd Krickler) who is firmly a passenger on the Tom-is-a-fairy bandwagon.
Laura had once married an 18 year-old who was killed in World War II in an attempt to demonstrate his courage and burnish his manliness. Accordingly, she feels the connection to the embattled Tom, who, himself, is just shy of turning 18.
At the same time, her current marriage to Bill is deteriorating, and she questions Bill’s own masculinity because of his over-the-top machismo that leads to his assuming the worst in Tom. Laura asks, “Did it ever occur to you that you persecute in Tom, the thing you fear in yourself?”
Tom does not receive comfort from his gruff father, Herbert Lee (Bob Ahrens). Hearing the rumors, too, and discovering the gown Tom was to wear in the play, the elder Lee orders Tom to abandon his plans to perform.
Tom is constantly being taunted and bullied by three fellow housemates. Shawn Naar, Kevin D. Baker and Dennis Binseel who plays Tom’s roommate Al, inject considerable energy into the play. Al, however, is conflicted between going along with his peers and his slightly more tolerant nature coupled with his loyalty to Tom. Binseel deftly conveys this welcome sensitivity and helps Tom develop a “manlier” walk as a way to mitigate the taunting.
Being sexually innocent, Tom withdraws and becomes confused as to what his sexual orientation really is. This leads to an escapade with a local girl that doesn’t go well, resulting in a potential expulsion from the school. At no time during the course of the play did Tom ever admit to being gay.
Laura continued to pull away from Bill and had decided to leave him. At the same time she takes even more of an interest in Tom. In an attempt to make Tom feel like a man, Laura discreetly offers herself at play’s end. As she prepares herself for the ultimate good deed she tells Tom, “Years from now—when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.”
Tea and Sympathy was one of the first American plays to address homosexuality and its resulting prejudice. The core message is the prejudice, not Tom’s actual sexual orientation, which remains unknown.
This production benefitted from wonderful acting performances with Karina Ferry, Justin Johnson and Dennis Binseel and Todd Krickler heading the list. The other cast members performed quite admirably as well.
As with other productions of Tea and Sympathy, a split set designed by Roark for this production is used: one depicting the Reynolds’ living room where students can come downstairs and cavort with the housemasters and the other set in the stage’s corner representing Tom’s bedroom symbolizing his isolation. The action alternates between the two.
Period furnishings in both Reynolds’ study and Tom’s dorm room were authentic, as was the mood music from 1950’s records featuring such artists as, Debbie Reynolds, Patti Page, Frankie Lyman and Peggy Lee.
All in all, this play is highly recommended for its skilled production and prevailing message, which has transcended over a half century.