Nostalgia reigned on a variety of scales this past weekend in Chicago.
During her Celebration tour, at a majestically packed United Center, Madonna acknowledged the last 40 years of her career, highlighting her '80s interactions with such New York City outlaws as Keith Haring, performance artist John Sex and underground writer Cookie Mueller. The guidance provided by these mavericks, who all passed away from AIDS, on her art and life was given visual and sonic importance throughout the evening.
Meanwhile across town, in the intimate 26-seat Open Space Arts space, Chicago director David Zak paid homage to one of his mentors, award-winning yet forgotten gay playwright Cal Yeomans, an early influence on the burgeoning queer theater scene of the '70s. Zak's heartfelt production of Yeomans' Sunsets: Two Acts on a Beach, details approximately the same era of Madonna's queer reveries, but upon the more tropical climes of a Florida gulf coast beach.
Last presented in Chicago in 1982, Sunset opens with The Line Forms to the Rear, a talkative reflection on the mid-life adventures of Henry, a former drag artist now living in his mother's southern home. Combatting the emotional repercussions of a failed romance, Henry spends his days wandering around the neighborhood K-Mart. But an unexpected accident in the store's garden section sends him down a more explicitly beneficial course.
Played with sass and emotional connection by John Cardone, Henry emerges as a resiliently relatable figure. His past has scarred him, but he has found a peculiarly joyful way of coping, resulting in a portrait of a complex member of the LGBTQIA community.
Interestingly, the spot where Henry's charity work takes him has local parallels, as well. Albeit eternally sun stroked in Yeoman's telling, the milieu itself is very much like the Rocks in Chicago, one of our city's historically beloved cruising spots.
Saucily, Henrietta, Henry's drag persona, fits into the second offering, At the End of the Road, as well. Providing musical reflections that highlight the budding connection between its participants, her presence reminds us of the roots that tie our stories together with mutual significance.
Here John, another gay man recovering from traumatic circumstances, finds his life being changed by a chance encounter with a married construction worker named Dan. After meeting, assumingly at the same sandy spot that Henry visits, the two began a tentative relationship. Through fits and starts, the duo eventually reveals more and more of themselves and, as their bond grows, they open themselves up to new experiences...possibly even love.
Nicely, Chris Sylvie's often buoyant John is contrasted effectively by Aaron Cappello's truthful hesitancy as Dan. Cappello, who ultimately gives the most natural performance here, and Sylvie truly ground these circumstances, allowing audience members to reflect on their own encounters and personal histories as well.
Of course, that seems to be the goal here as Zak's authentic enthusiasm for the material is also noted through his collaboration with the production staff. Set designer Rick Paul and lighting designer Justin Walker supply the appropriately airy touches while sound designer Zach Stinnett also authentically pegs time and space.
The nudity and Yeoman's sexually accentuated dialogue do seem to harken back to the 'hear me roar" days of the piece's genesis. But they find timely resonance in this production, as well. Our rights and lives are still being threatened on a daily basis. There is no time like the present, highlighted by the veils of our past, to expose our truest selves.
Sunsets: Two Acts on a Beach runs through February 18th at Open Space Arts, 1411 W. Wilson Avenue. More information is available at www.openspacearts.com .