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'Telling' Probes the Dark World of 1970s Homophobia

Natalie Bates’ play grapples with the difficulties of telling your family who you truly are.

In this moment in American history, the Fresh Fruit Festival, a theater festival focused on LGBTQ arts and culture in New York, has much to celebrate. With the recent nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian relationships are now considered, if not normal, at least far more comprehensible than they once were. It is perhaps, then, very fitting that playwright Natalie Bates has chosen with her new play Telling to take us all the way back to 1972, and in some ways to a completely different world.

For 48 hours, best friends Deborah and Claire declare in the first few moments of the piece, they will not discuss their husbands or their children, only to find that that is all they can ever talk or worry about for the entire length of the play. Despite their unending roles as family caretakers, however, these everyday suburban women manage to fall in love, carrying on a torrid affair under the noses of their children and grandchildren. But the true drama occurs when the women decide that they need to tell their families the truth, and in an instant, their picture-perfect domestic lives are shattered.

Telling is a true kitchen sink drama, with most of the action revolving around the kitchen table and directly concerning the members of Deborah's family, both old and new. Little is seen of Claire's family, unfortunately, and that only toward the end, so that the isolated woman often does feel like the interloper Deborah's husband accuses her of being. But the true heart of the play, of course, is the relationship between the two women, forming their own family out of the battered remains of their former lives.

Much of the early scenes of the piece are caught in a mode of telling rather than showing, whether that is talking about being tipsy without a wineglass in sight or Deborah and Claire imagining getting caught and exposed by Deborah's family without that ever occurring. But that all changes the moment Claire blurts out the truth, and hidden emotions come boiling to the surface. People in this play are petty, self-centered and vindictive, sadly fair representatives of the brutal reality of everyday life.

We witness a wide range of reactions from the family, from outright denial and disbelief to fury and accusations of selfishness. A religious element is included in the form of granddaughter Kimmy, whose Fundamentalist Christian friend has taught her that she will go to hell if she even touches a gay person, without religion dominating the discussion. Instead, it is all about family obligations, and about women expected to put everyone else first.

Virginia Dutton (Deborah) and Debbie Bernstein (Claire) do a fantastic job with the leading roles, portraying the complexity of women fighting between family and true love, and with the utter unselfconsciousness of lovers half their age. In comparison to these intricate characters, however, the rest of the cast can sometimes come across as caricatures, from Deborah's jarringly immature and self-centered son Daniel (Mikel Vaughn) to his wife, the epitome of a 1970s hippie Nadine (Michele O'Brien). But each role is important in the telling of Deborah and Claire's story, and certain elements, such as the absolutely repulsive and exquisitely performed misogyny of Deborah's husband Stan (Paul Eismann), serve well to elevate the women's struggle.

Telling is a story about an impossible choice: family or love. It concludes on a cautiously optimistic note, but it is clear that there is far more to this tale yet to be told. Moving and discomfiting, this play forces its audience to consider the pain of losing a family who doesn't accept one's identity, and the bravery that it takes to overcome the terror and speak up anyway. A riveting and important story for the modern day.

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