BY JIM LYNN
Special to the Ledger-Enquirer
Normal. It’s all just so normal. Ozzie and Harriet. I Love Lucy. Two happy couples living on two sides of a duplex in 1950. The best of friends. Silly jokes, happy times, no worries.
Topher Payne’s acclaimed “A Perfect Arrangement” opens with lighthearted banter of a stereotypically 1950s sort. Bob telling corny jokes and Norma discussing her glorious canapes and Millie bemoaning the “curse of bride’s biscuits.” Norma wants to know what furniture polish Millie uses. “Such a brilliant shine!”
The modern audience sees the happy foursome as their contemporaries in Georgetown would have. Just as normal and respectable and as patriotic as anyone else. They wouldn’t stand out at your weekly bridge parties. But what emerges as the play develops creates a message that Springer artistic director Paul Pierce hopes will motivate those of 2018 Columbus to think.
Pierce remarked at a pre-opening reading that “A Perfect Arrangement” is not the sort of production he’d bring to Columbus after being here just three years. But his tenure has stretched now for 30 years, and at this point he’s willing to take a few risks when it comes to tough issues he cares about, like recognizing the challenges faced by gay and lesbian couples.
Norma and Jim and Millie and Bob live a nice, pedestrian life in Washington. Bob and Norma work in the Truman State Department. Jim’s a high school teacher; Millie doesn’t work. But beyond the silly chatter, we start to see the grit beneath the façade, a tangled web of lies and deceit, of “lavender marriages” and of stresses that become so intense that their perfectly arranged, everyday happiness begins to crumble.
The coverup even has architectural support. The two sides of the duplex are joined through a door in a shared closet, a predictable metaphor. The characters enter heterosexually through the duplex’s two separate exterior doors but join homosexually through the interior closet door.
Bob and Norma’s jobs at State, already challenged by the rigor of ridding Foggy Bottom of communists, get increasingly tense as the historically accurate rooting of homosexuals from the department takes its toll. Gay and lesbian lifestyles were deemed by the Truman administration and all the way to Bill Clinton’s days as a security risk because of blackmail exposure. Hundreds were forced to resign.
Payne, a Mississippi native who dropped out of high school to work in theatres, has written and produced a string of successful plays, many with Southern-inspired themes. “Lakebottom Prime” and “Lakebottom Proper” are well known to Springer audiences as zany parodies with a Wynnton drawl, including not so deftly having aliens invade Lakebottom Park.
“A Perfect Arrangement” is Payne at a dramatically higher level. The play was produced off Broadway in 2015 after a run in Washington and its formative early productions in Atlanta. It captured thoroughly positive reviews by the New York Times and won the American Theatre Critics Association’s top honors for new plays.
Forget aliens and Midtown guffaws. Instead, Payne brings a masterful, seamless blend of comedy – at first light, later dark – intrigue and the serious struggle between honesty and the pragmatic.
The play gains its depth in an unraveling of layers of lies and the realization that the veneer, carefully engineered to ensure jobs and social acceptance, is simply not worth the stress and anguish. The result is a play about the challenges faced by homosexual couples in the McCarthy era – “the private side of the public turmoil,” Payne says – that’s remarkably neither preachy nor flippant.
“When the stakes get high, there’s opportunity for sincere, dramatic moments,” Payne said on a recent morning between rehearsals at the Springer. “It’s striking a balance between farce and frustration, and honoring both.”
The play is theatrically solid enough to hold the attention of even those who might cringe at seeing gay themes on the Springer stage. Yes, there is a same-sex kiss. But by creating affable, sometimes ditzy, characters easy for any audience to care about, Payne gives us room to empathize with the complex, inner turmoil they face. Pierce hopes it gets his Columbus audience beneath the surface of public issues so often cast today in black and white, Fox vs. MSNBC, red vs. blue.
No, we’re not living the “red scare” and the “lavender scare” of the early 50s. Yes, our workplaces are diverse. Same-sex marriages no longer spark public scandal. But Pierce wonders if we’ve taken the next step, to understand the turmoil faced by those living in an unaccepting world.
He said it’s a bit like the late Ledger-Enquirer editorial page editor Mary Margaret Byrne’s quip that Columbus is a “hotbed of social rest.”
“The Springer represents a conservative, relatively well behaved audience,” Pierce said. “But we do tell important stories here. And ‘A Perfect Arrangement’ is a conversation that Columbus is not having. The LGBT community has a voice in some communities, and there are communities where it does not. Right now, Columbus is a community where it does not.”
Some differ with Pierce’s views about how understanding we are of our gay neighbors, but regardless, “A Perfect Arrangement” gives us a reason to think.
“This is not just the next play at the Springer Opera House,” Pierce said.
Jim Lynn is an independent journalist and a former political reporter and editor for the Ledger-Enquirer and the Wichita Eagle. Lynn36867@aol.com.
A PERFECT ARRANGEMENT
A critically acclaimed, well constructed look at lives impacted by the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s. Mature themes; not for children.
▪ Sarah Lynn Herman plays Millie Martindale, Bob’s wife and Norma’s lover.
▪ David Allen Grindstaff plays Bob Martindale, a manager at the State Department; Millie’s husband and Jim’s partner.
▪ Kate Graham plays Norma Baxter, Bob’s assistant at State and Jim’s wife; Millie’s partner.
▪ Jim Pharr plays Jim Baxter, a high school teacher, Norma’s husband and Bob’s lover.
▪ Steve Valentini plays Theodore Sunderson, Bob’s boss
▪ Shannon Eubanks plays Kitty Sunderson, Theodore’s wife
▪ Gina Rickicki plays Barbara Grant, a State employee