Maggie Scrantom and Rashaad Hall in About Face Theatre’s Midwest premiere of ‘Time Is On Our Side.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Doors are an important metaphorical concept, as well as a primary set design feature, in the Midwest premiere of Time is On Our Side from About Face Theatre. Written by R. Eric Thomas, and directed by About Face Artistic Director Megan Carney, the work takes a look at queer culture and the telling of its stories from colonial America through Obergefell v. Hodges, asking several important historical questions.
When does “your” narrative become “ours” in the ongoing fight to educate, to change minds and establish true cultural parity? And what does it mean to re-open long closed gateways to the past? Are ghosts entitled to privacy?
Best friends and historical podcast co-hosts, Annie (Maggie Scrantom) and Curtis (Rashaad Hall), are queer millennials earnestly trying to fill in the blanks of Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ story. Annie is employed in a full-time day job and newly single after a breakup with Curtis’ childhood pal (who also happens to be an NPR producer). At the play’s outset, Annie views the podcast as a fun and interesting hobby.
Meanwhile Curtis is married to his college sweetheart, nurturing the resentments that come with being cast aside by a prominent, judgmental journalism family. He sees the podcast project as a potential ticket to media fame, and by extension, an opportunity to avenge patriarchal rejection. Annie and Curtis’ fundamental misunderstanding of each other’s intent is one of many communication disputes that form the plot of Time Is on Our Side.
It also must be said that Annie and Curtis are pretty terrible people. Whether this is intentional or not, Thomas can’t resist writing the friends into broad generational stereotype. Annie is not quite the independent and woke lesbian to which her twentysomething self-aspires. An aversion to information and the truth about her idealized grandparents (a mystery that propels the script) smacks of petulant, subjective privilege. Annie lives rent-free in the family homestead and repays the boon with hypocrisy. At least initially, she pretends to historical contribution by neutering the stories of loved ones – as an act of warped self-preservation. It is unappealing.
Curtis pursues career ambition through dishonest, obsessive and mercenary behavior that makes his network of friends uncomfortable. And the character can afford this “problematic” (one of Curtis’ favorite words) approach, without a steady income, because of another type of privilege he’s young enough to take for granted—marriage equality. Curtis’ never-seen husband underwrites his amateur, and ultimately fruitless quest to mine Annie’s past for personal gain.
It’s a good thing then that, in a neat trick of narrative creativity, Annie and Curtis’ stories are not the point. They are mere cyphers for taking a fresh look at the complicated and colorful tapestry of living Baby Boomer gay in post-World War II America. And though Scrantom and Hall turn in serviceable performances, they and their characters ultimately take a backseat to the fine work done by Esteban Andres Cruz and Riley Mondragon in multiple, poignant roles.
Cruz and Mondragon appear in the cast as contemporaries, collaborators and friends of Annie and Curtis, giving wise and humorous voice to the warnings that the podcasters ought to hear in their heads. In Act II, the performers return to the stage to inhabit two elder statespeople of the local queer community—who teach Annie and Curtis a thing or two about injudiciously opening doors and rushing to moral judgment. I found Cruz particularly mesmerizing as a widowed keeper of AIDS quilt panels, beautifully conveying the confounding but relatable incongruity between loneliness and the desire for anonymity.
The production’s technical work is impressive. Sound Designer Christopher Kriz mixes media into a satisfactory, relevant, multi-century blend that supports the script’s themes of historical archiving, entertainment in the Internet age and most appropriately of all, silence. The production’s quiet moments speak as loudly as any dialogue. Kriz’s approach meshes well with scenic designer Jose Manuel Diaz’s liberal use of multi-color, multi-sized doors to move the characters through their discoveries.
Ultimately About Face Theatre’s Time is On Our Side is a qualified success. If audience members can get past the two most unlikeable protagonists in recent dramatic memory, they will be rewarded with articulate, emotional stories from queer ancestors who could ill afford the self-involved, traitorous ickiness with which Annie and Curtis regularly engage their community.
Time is On Our Side
1229 W Belmont Avenue, Chicago
Through April 7
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic and blogger. On March 29, 2018, her first book, Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team, will be published by Eckhartz Press. She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.