Award-winning Island City Stage has presented a half dozen world premieres in its five-year history, the most acclaimed being Michael McKeever’s “Daniel’s Husband,” which is now enjoying a successful Primary Stages run at off-Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre.
Island City’s sixth world premiere, James L. Beller Jr.’s “Son,” has just opened at the LGBTQ company’s home in Wilton Manors.
The play about a lesbian couple whose long relationship is upended on their wedding day is a well-acted exploration of emotional flashpoints, including the destructive power of a long-hidden trauma and the stresses of dealing with a teenager going through what may be a life-altering crisis.
Director Michael Leeds and his design team, Carbonell Award winners all, have poured their considerable creative talent into “Son.” Yet like many new scripts, Beller’s play is a work in progress, a piece in need of editing, rewrites and some rethinking if it’s to have a life beyond Island City.
At the center of the play are Jean Garcia (Arlette Del Toro) and Day Branford (Elizabeth Price), women who met when Jean was a teen mom with a 2-year-old. For 13 years, they have raised Perry Garcia-Branford (Gabe Vasquez) together, and though their boy sports black-painted nails, favors dark, metal-band T-shirts and is as unforthcoming as many teens, he seems to be a good kid from a loving home.
Having decided at long last to marry, the women are dressed in their wedding finery — Day in an off-white suit and lacy blouse, Jean in a beautiful dress (the work of costume designer Peter Lovello) — when a knock at the door signals that their world is about to shift radically. A cop (Juan Alberto Pérez) asks to see Perry, then arrests him on charges of sexual assault. Cursing and enraged, Perry claims the alleged victim, the daughter of religious fundamentalists, is lying. But is she?
“Son” unfolds more like a movie screenplay, with 29 listed scenes, some lasting just a few minutes, one entirely silent. Jean, Day and Perry all get emotionally revelatory monologues, which Del Toro, Price and Vasquez deliver with intense, engaging power. The structure may be aimed at 21st century attention spans, but the cumulative effect of a play that runs more than two hours is that this story is being told in fits and starts.
Obvious plot devices and improbabilities strain the credibility of Beller’s script.
For instance, Margaret (Sabrina Lynn Gore) and Lisa (Erynn Dalton), an estranged but still-cohabiting couple, hire a male stripper dressed as a policeman to “entertain” Jean and Day on the eve of their wedding. In the aftermath, the four talk about which of them have tried sex with men, and the unseen stripper “cop” sets up another plot development. But would a naked guy really be primo lesbian bachelorette party entertainment? Doubtful.
Without going into detailed spoilers that would ruin the play’s surprises for future audiences, other plot devices just don’t fly. Would Jean really keep the story of her teen pregnancy secret throughout a 13-year relationship? Would Perry’s resemblance to his father just now begin to spook her? Would Day walk away as her partner and son were in crisis? Would Margaret and Lisa become Day’s all-in romantic cheerleaders? Not buying any of that.
Even some of the design team’s work seemed a little star-crossed on opening night.
A slamming door caused a painting to drop from the wall of set designer Michael McClain’s rendition of Day and Jean’s cozy house in Annapolis. Twice, Travis Neff’s lighting came blazing back to life as people were still onstage changing props. Lovello’s costumes seem right for each character (and that wedding dress is gorgeous), but would Day really wear a wrinkled suit to work? David Hart’s sound design was trouble-free, and doubtless these glitches won’t be repeated, but they made for an opening performance that didn’t hit the bar Island City has set for itself.
The performances in “Son,” however, are another story. Price, who has become one of the region’s finest actors, conveys Day’s inner turmoil and her commitment to Perry, even as circumstance propels her in a different direction. Del Toro is compelling as the deeply traumatized Jean, depressed, wounded and at her wit’s end. As Perry, Vasquez is a bundle of raging hormones and fearful anger, thoroughly convincing as a boy drowning in a world of grown-up trouble. Gore and Dalton bring a welcome sunniness to a story full of emotional complexities.
New play work is challenging but vital, and Island City’s commitment to it is a wonderful thing. If he’s willing to rewrite and restructure “Son,” Beller may wind up with a script that has a future. But he’s not there yet.
“Son” runs through May 7 at Island City Stage, 2034 N. Dixie Highway, in Wilton Manors. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 954-519-2533 or go to IslandCityStage.org.