Theater has long been a forum for exposing society’s ills. Joel Drake Johnson’s “A Queer Kiss,” fits that tradition, exploring the minefields of sexual orientation, bullying and parent-child relationships.
Deep Dish Theater Company commissioned Johnson, a prolific Chicago-based playwright, to write about issues raised by the same-sex marriage debate. Johnson decided to focus on incidents he had observed as a high school teacher.
The 90-minute one-act follows two high school seniors as they deal with budding sexuality. While rehearsing privately for theater class, outgoing, athletic Bret suggests to quiet, studious Scott that they broaden their life experience by seeing what a kiss would be like. After doing so, Bret pronounces it pleasant and seemingly checks it off his “to do” list.
Scott, however, is jolted by the incident and writes Bret an emotional email expressing his feelings for him. An angry Bret warns Scott not to speak to him anymore and begins to harass him with epithets and threats. Thrown into turmoil, Scott tells his mother, Lynn, about Bret’s bullying, but not the reason for it. Lynn informs Bret’s mother, Cheryl, who confronts Bret about his behavior. Bret’s denial of his actions leads to accusations and recriminations on all sides, exposing prejudices, regrets and secrets.
Johnson’s intentions are sincere, but his characters are too generic and the situations too predictable. The script seems determined to include all the textbook talking points about repressed sexuality, including thoughts of suicide, questioning of religion, homophobia masking true feelings and parental expectations of “normal” behavior.
Production values could overcome much of what the script lacks, but director Paul Frellick seems more concerned with brisk pacing than nuanced characterization. The actors speed through scenes that cry out for reaction and reflection time, further emphasizing the formulaic dialogue.
Johnson’s best writing is for the mothers, and MaryKate Cunningham’s Lynn and Catherine Rodgers’ Cheryl provide the production’s main emotional truths. Daniel Doyle’s Bret and Matthew Hager’s Scott are appealing, but their characters are mostly one-dimensional. Tony Lea gives Bret’s father Will some range, but Jonathan Leinbach as Scott’s father Rich is locked into one-note anger and bitterness.
Still, Deep Dish’s production should resonate strongly with most audience members, although more from its themes than specifics of script or staging.