They hate that we place such a premium on the self and its development, often at the expense of the world around us. Our entertainment is steeped in selfishness: We believe during Rent, that, yes, the lives of these peacocking twerps are art. Our self-involvement applies not just to our individual lives but also to our entire culture, For many of us, the very questions "Why do they hate us?" or "How do my actions effect others?" bear the whiff of treason.
This brings us to the Unicorn's stellar production Iron Kisses, a sharply acted play that toys movingly with the latter question. Written by Kansas native James Still, Iron Kisses is, on one level, another dash through two of the most common (and self-involved) ideas that you'd see in a young playwrights' workshop: a coming-out tale, with a detour into how a character got the hell out of the small town where nobody understood him. Still's innovation is to give us this story from the parents' perspective before giving it to us from the kids' — and to have his actors play both generations.
We open on Nathan Darrow, our Billy, onstage alone, playing Billy's mother. Darrow is darling at this, sitting primly, his long body hunched in on itself to suggest that this character isn't used to speaking at such length about such private things. Her stories about Billy's childhood are honest, but they aren't unflinching. And Darrow elicits laughs and feeling from her blind-spots. During a visit from the adult Billy and his lover, Michael, the mother saw that the boys were holding hands under the table. This intimacy both touches and scares her, and it leads her almost inevitably to consider what her boy must get up to in the sack. Quickly, though, she escapes these thoughts and flutters on to something else.
Darrow stops every couple of minutes to become Billy's father, whom he embodies with a tender brusqueness. Dad is given fewer words than Mom, but they're all lode-bearing. When he relates a conversation with a precocious young Billy about the relative meanings of forever and eternity and then adds, slowly, that this was the moment he knew that his son would someday grow up and leave their town, I enjoyed a gush of feeling far richer than anything I've felt at the theater this year.
Dad and mom tell the story together, charting their grudging acceptance of Billy's life in particular if not homosexuality in general. Always, they wonder: "What are we going to tell our friends?" After some time — the combination of Darrow and this script is so arresting that I can't guess how long he holds the stage alone — Karen Errington takes over. As Barbara, Billy's sister, Errington also spends a large chunk of the show playing these parents. This time, we get another familiar story, that of the sibling who never left. In this rare noncomic role, Errington is right in league with Darrow, commanding attention and sympathy. And she, too, got a lump tickling my throat: As the mother, she admits that she wishes she had someone, anyone, with whom she could share her secrets. This is a striking note on which to end a lengthy monologue, and, despite its power, it made me wonder: Would these reticent Midwestern parents truly speak so frankly? Fortunately, Still is smart enough to make this incongruity the point of the climactic twist, one that richens everything that's gone before.
Later, when Errington and Darrow are at last onstage together, playing the grown-up Barbara and Billy, the story loses some of its clarity, but director Sidonie Garrett guides both actors through it with clear-eyed emphasis. Right up to an abrupt ending, they barrel on with uncommon insight.
What's remarkable is how much Billy understands and cares for the small town he comes from. Instead of fueling itself on the Rent-like assumption that the place and the people that our heroes left behind deserved to be abandoned, Iron Kisses is driven by a beleaguered affection. Billy understands that his parents' opposition to gay marriage is rooted not in hatred but in the same provincial discomfort that causes his dad, on a visit to San Francisco, to refer to Central Standard as "real time." By the end, the play has turned poet Philip Larkin's famous complaint inside out: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad," Larkin wrote. This excellent ensemble makes it clear that we do it right back.