nytheatre.com review by John Jordan
February 15, 2007
Fraught with homophobia spanning three decades, genuine performances, and rock-solid direction, Dean Gray's Uncle is by far one of the best plays I have seen in the past few years. This story really touched me, and by the sniffling going on throughout the audience near the end of Act 2, I realized I was not the only one who escaped into the wonderful and gently moving world the production team at Blue Heron Theatre has skillfully created.
Set in 1995, Uncle is the tale of Brent, a successful, yet lonely, composer living in New York City. He is also gay. He is lonely because he craves the acceptance of his homophobic, set-in-their-ways, middle-American family, and it is not forthcoming.
The play opens with Brent's unsuccessful suicide attempt and subsequent search for information about his Uncle Irvin, who, according to the family, was murdered when Brent was only one. Brent, however, believes his uncle committed suicide (he died of an overdose). Asking his mother, Iris, about his uncle's death is futile. Knowing his uncle was a member of the Roger Wagner Chorale, Brent visits the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center where he happens upon Sean, a reference librarian. (Wise people say one finds love when one is NOT looking for love.)
Brent is also rather curious about an old photograph of his Uncle Irvin. In the photo, Irvin is with another man. When Brent asks his mother about this particular photograph, she tightens up. But, luckily for the audience, we have already witnessed the scene played out when the photograph is taken. Via flashbacks, we are taken back to 1963, where the truth about Irvin and Iris comes out, the mystery man in the photo is revealed, and we see a brother reaching out to his sister for acceptance.
This is where the parallel between Iris' son and brother takes its stronghold—a brother and a son, both reaching out to the same woman, 33 years apart. Gray has done a fantastic job intertwining these aspects of the play back and forth between the alternating time-frames. There are a few instances where Uncle Irvin comes onstage and watches Brent, sometimes singing to him. This is truly eerie and fascinating playwriting.
The direction by Wayne Maugans is top-notch. The pace of this play should never be rampant, and Maugans directs the cast accordingly.
Grounding the action as Brent, Brian Patacca does a fine job. Darren Lougée gives a very humble performance as Uncle Irvin, especially in the scenes where he is watching over Brent.
James Heatherly does darn good double duty as both Sean and Tone. (Tone is the mystery man of the infamous photo.) Heatherly's portrayal of Sean is so endearing and honest; it made me think of this character as the poster child for all good relationships.
Richard Bowden plays the older version of Tone (i.e., Anthony), who is still alive and well, having been tracked down by Brent. Any time that Bowden is on stage, you are drawn to the emotion going on quietly inside... another wonderful performance.
Nancy McDoniel's portrayal of the very troubled and burdened Iris was beyond amazing. She pulls out all the stops... while keeping all of Iris' years of pain and anguish and outrage and guilt inside... and not letting it out until just the right moment. BRAVA!!!
The costume design by Martin T. Lopez definitely works the era change. Paul Bartlett's lighting design is sharp, which really helped to transform the space right before our eyes. The set design by Daniel Ettinger is simple and very clever, most notably the table that doubles as a piano, which is so life-like, I really thought it was a piano. The sound design by David Lawson is just incredible. Choral music is just what this play calls for, and the choral music heard during the performance is actually available at the box office—selections from Andrew Rindfleish's Choral Works, performed by Isthmus Vocal Ensemble, Scott MacPherson, conductor.