We confirmed city mice often live in blissful ignorance of the downside to the pastoral splendor enjoyed by our rural brethren: the enforcement of small-town mores, the unacceptability of deviation from provincial norms, and the whispers hissing behind one's back. In Farm Boys, a warm if light adaptation of Will Fellows's book about the lives of gay men in the rural Midwest, the sting of the community's disapproval is never far away, nor is the weight of the past.
Action commences with the death of Lyle (Philip Callen), a long-divorced country veterinarian. Don't worry too much about him--he promptly wakes up in heaven, which for him is populated by hunky guys with whom he can explore pursuits he was largely too repressed to enjoy while breathing. As a final riposte to his life, Lyle wills his farm to John (Matt Guidry), a onetime intergenerational flame who has long since moved on to life in New York.
John arrives in Colby, Wisconsin, with boyfriend Kim (Joe Leary); the bulk of the play deals with John's decision whether to dispense with, or move onto, the property. John Miller-Stephany adroitly directs a tricky script by Amy Fox and Dean Gray, in which Lyle watches from his perch in the afterlife, acts out flashbacks with John, and materializes to his former lover. Matthew Reinert's terrific lighting design signals these shifts, nicely evoking the big sky of the farm and the more celestial sights of Lyle's new turf.
Nothing here overly quickens the pulse; a subplot emerges via a wacko teenager named Keith (Harlan Chambers, with a dash of Crispin Glover) that proves a minor detour. There's some drama about what John will do with the farm, but the ending that emerges is the only one possibly consistent with his character. What works are the performances: Guidry reveals the taciturn country boy beneath the big-city sophisticate, Leary turns in a conflicted man at an ephemeral crossroads, and Callen locates the warmth beneath a stunted spirit. Farm Boys at times feels as though it settles for middling ambitions, but it does so with no shortage of heart and sincerity.
Jonathan Tolins's The Twilight of the Golds is structured around Wagner's Ring Cycle as a metaphor for its characters' travails, a deeply silly conceit. But a snappy script, a talented cast, and focused direction make this a completely entertaining show that wrests a considerable amount of power out of an implausible scenario.
The first act is an extended, quite funny sitcom-style piece in which young marrieds Rob (Ryan Lindberg) and Suzanne (Maren Bush) spar with her parents and her brother David (Joseph Papke). In the course of things, Suzanne reveals she is pregnant, which is great news until Rob avails himself of a genetic test courtesy of his biotech employer, and they learn that their child is a boy and that he will almost certainly be gay.
It's not that Tolins is dealing in stereotypes, but brother David is employed as an opera set designer, so imagine his reaction when the couple begin deliberations over whether to abort the fetus (my own was utter shock, until I got Tolins's point: We are not to like these people very much). Director Jef Hall-Flavin's cast pushes this material into smart and compelling places with a consistency that sells the ensuing tragedy that emerges from the earlier comedy. Bush and Lindberg have great onstage chemistry, and Papke carries well the profound existential weight thrust upon his character. Finally, we're left to deal with the echoes of the Wagnerian sweep of the 20th century's purging of social "undesirables," along with the complexities of this century's specters of technical innovation. Every time we hope murder is expunged from our makeup, it emerges again as part of our essential nature, a disturbing point this stealthily effective production brings to our messy and disordered collective home.