Lloyd's Prayer has returned to the Illusion Theater, and I with it. I volunteered as an usher at the original production--my crafty technique, back in my early 20s, of seeing plays on the cheap. This fact seems to startle everyone. Illusion Theater founder Michael H. Robins cocks his head oddly when I mention it and declares that it can't be possible. "We did this play, what, 14 years ago?" he says. "You don't look that old." Kevin Kling, who wrote the play, lets out a yawp of astonishment. "No, you didn't really, did you?" he declares. A reminder, perhaps, that 14 years in Minnesota theater might as well be a lifetime (and that I'm apparently aging quite nicely, thankyouverymuch!).
Perhaps some of the surprise comes from the fact that Lloyd's Prayer itself could last for 14 years, as the play, which details the adventures of a boy who was raised by raccoons and the religious con man who adopts him, is so thoroughly an act of whimsy. This is, after all, a production in which an angel descends from the ceiling with a light bulb affixed behind her head, declaring weakly that we should "be amazed." This same command repeats throughout the performance, always as a comical gesture, as there is so little in the play by way of spectacle. Even a scene in which God rains punishments down on the con man is notably unspectacular: In the original production, Bob the Beast Boy (then played by Kling himself) and Lloyd the con man (then played by Michael Sommers) simply ran in place, occasionally beset by very bright lights, at which time they let out a simultaneous scream. In this version, with Bob played by a shaggy-haired Nathan Christopher and Lloyd played by the omnipresent Zach Curtis, the lights that frighten them are colored, and they break into a little impromptu dance routine midway.
Here and elsewhere, the new staging is eerily like the previous one. Nathan Christopher, in the role Kling created, has moments in his performance that seem to stop the clock and then reverse it 14 years. There are the odd clicking noises he makes rather than speaking, and an utter earnestness to his expressions. Yet this new production has an unexpected poignancy, too. Some of this is because Kling has reworked his second act, in which his characters inadvertently hurt each other and must grope their way toward some sort of redemption. This act was always a little discombobulated, and now is combobulated, and very sweet as a result. There is further poignancy in the fact that this act of whimsy on Kling's part has had the toughness to survive this long, and still be so much fun. It came in the late 1980s at a time when it seemed as though Kling was dashing something like this off every other week. Then, it was delightful but perhaps a bit of a toss-away. With Kling's horrific motorcycle accident this year, suddenly the playwright seemed as fragile and as easily lost as the whimsy he produced, and it is with great relief that we discover that the playwright and his plays are tougher than that.
Speaking of tough, Lee Blessing, another alumnus of Twin Cities stages, has brought back to his old town quite a sharp play. Thief River, currently showing at the Guthrie Lab, details three defining moments in the lives of two gay men from rural Minnesota. These moments span a half-century, and so the two men are played by six actors of advancing age. The script is keen and brutal, opening with the men as lads experiencing firsthand the bloody outrage they--and their sexuality in particular--engender.
It's really a bang-up script, and it's given a terrific treatment by director Ethan McSweeny and the Guthrie: Toward the end there is a long, lovely scene of ambivalent reconciliation between the two leads, played at this moment by Richard Ooms with bitterly flamboyant gestures and by William Whitehead with wry, craggy mannerisms. The scene has dialogue as good as any I've seen in a long time, and is played with great gentleness and humor. This is the sort of risky and ambitious script that the Guthrie should be producing, and, bravo for them, they are.