In the current run of Queen City Theatre’s third show of the season, “The Pride” by Alexi Kaye Campbell offers a vivid glimpse of how far the LGBTQ community has come, and how far we have left to go. Addressing forbidden love, societal condemnation and torturous shame, the 1958 setting of the play poses many questions that are still relevant today. Alternately, the parallel setting in 2008 raises different questions: is sexual promiscuity liberating or self-destructive? The answers aren’t set in stone.
These two time periods could easily have become confusing if it weren’t for skillful direction, costuming and other, more subtle cues. A ticking clock is one sound effect which signals a melding of the two times, as if the characters are haunted by past lives. Lighting is also used creatively, with different colors setting the emotions of each scene even as two times sat side by side onstage.
Four actors play parallel characters in each time, three holding the same names although they are distinct individuals. Though their relationships are different — with Sylvia married to Philip in 1958, and Sylvia as Oliver’s best friend in 2008 — their patterns of behavior have obvious parallels that bring to mind Eastern philosophies of kismet and reincarnation.
Throughout lifetimes, Oliver pursues Philip, who resists for very different reasons. In 1958, Philip is deeply ashamed of his orientation and his betrayal of Sylvia, whom he seems to want to protect from himself. The 2008 Oliver drives his lover away with incessant infidelity with anonymous men, which he calls “an addiction” even while he professes love for Philip.
The overarching themes of the play are focused on the interconnected relationship of shame and love. “Knowing” another in more than the biblical sense is important in both time periods. Modern-day Oliver is drawn to men who seem to call his name — but really, it seems, he is searching for the lost love of 1958 Philip, who appears onstage in 2008 as if a manifestation of some distant fantasy that Oliver can’t quite name.
The play has moments of wicked humor that had the audience cackling at times. One crowd favorite is actor Michael Harris’ for-hire BDSM Dominant describing an ex who had a fecal fetish as a “fucking pervert.” A personal favorite line for me is 2008’s Sylvia telling Oliver, “you have to stop sucking the dick of your oppressor!”
By and large, the actors of the production make the play seem more genuine than previous iterations of the show, at least judging from a New York Times review of the 2010 off-Broadway production. Sylvia, played by Katie Addison, has distinct mannerisms and personality in each time period, suggesting that women have come just as far as gay men. Steven Buchanan’s Oliver seems most natural in his parts, with a flowing British accent and a sincerity of emotion that almost hurt.
Philip, played by Cory Collins, had some of the hardest scenes to swallow, with a barely concealed self-hatred that turns outward. Though his accent isn’t flawless, the swift shifts in the energy of one scene in particular are admirably executed. Collins portrays such inner conflict with every fiber of his being, with voice and expressions that have you on the edge of your seat.
Most chilling by far is the play’s introduction to conversion therapy, a practice still perpetrated in many regions of the United States. “The Pride” raises one question about this practice that many may not have asked: conversion therapy may (however ineffectively) address the sexual attraction to the same sex, “but what about the other feelings?” asks Philip. “The ones that aren’t sexual?”
“The Pride” is a compelling play that will keep you thinking hours after leaving the theatre. The script itself was a daring choice for Queen City Theatre Company, and one that many have criticized. Yet the minute details and complex staging executed by director Glenn T. Griffin created an entire world onstage. It is a world hauntingly familiar to some, but is relatable no matter your sexual preference.
“The Pride” shows at the Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square until May 13. Tickets run $23-25, with student and senior discounts available at Carolina Tix.