Don’t be fooled by the understated tone of Tea and Sympathy. The Artistic Home’s production of Robert Anderson’s 1953 drama packs an intensely delivered emotional punch. And while the 59-year-old drama is dated in some of its specifics, it is at once timeless and strikingly timely in its entirety.
At the core of Anderson’s shocking-for-its-time plot is the onset of bullying, homophobia and hellishly destructive havoc a boarding school community wreaks on a student who is seen as an “off horse.”
Being one of the crowd, as anyone who survived high school can attest, is of paramount importance during those fraught teen years. Yet it would be a mistake to classify Tea and Sympathy simply as a piece that deals only with the Breakfast Club demographic. In the brutality and pack mentality of the boarding school, Anderson creates an atmosphere of unjust suspicion and persecution that mirrored the McCarthy era of the play’s debut. And while Joe McCarthy’s blacklisting witch hunt has long passed, the sort of fear mongering and righteous condemnation that defined his campaign remain noxiously potent in many a contemporary group dynamic from grade school cliques to college fraternities to political parties.
When we first meet the shy, artistically-inclined Tom Lee, he’s almost painfully innocent. And when a simple swimming excursion with one of his teachers becomes something “deviant” under the distorting lens of vicious gossip, Tom is heart-rendingly baffled as to why he’s suddenly become a pariah and why his teacher has been dismissed in disgrace. Following the example of the school’s instructors, Tom’s raucously macho dorm mates deem Tom a “fairy.” In this small, parochial world, being gay is synonymous with being a pervert, and Tom becomes an instant outcast.
Anderson paints a portrait of adolescent cruelty that’s so upsetting you may find yourself wanting to jump on stage and clock the teenage goons, parents and clueless, possibly closeted instructors who fear homosexuality as much as they revile it.
Director David New clearly understands the toxic power that comes when bigotry merges with mob mentality. It’s difficult to watch Tea and Sympathy unfold without thinking of the tragedy of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate rigged their dorm room with a camcorder and broadcast a live video feed of Clementi romancing a date. (The roommate, Dharun Ravi, now faces prison time. In a just world, his sentence would be as permanent as Clementi’s death.)
Tea and Sympathy’s vulnerable heart lies in Andrew Cutler’s sensitive and moving portrayal of Tom Lee. The role is demanding – Tom’s emotional journey is long and harrowing, as he travels from naïve, trusting and happy schoolboy to embittered, self-loathing adult. It doesn’t end there though. In the piece’s final scene of redemption there’s a moment of profound sweetness tinged with unmistakable sorrow as Tom finds a measure of solace and confidence in the sole person on campus who seems to understand just how unjust the school has been to Tom.
That one person is Laura Reynolds (Kate Tummelson), newlywed wife of teacher Bill Reynolds (Peter DeFaria), an emphatically macho type who enjoys nothing so much as taking a group of boys out for a hearty camping trip. (Make of that what you will.) Tummelson’s Laura is initially soft-spoken but gradually, inexorably grows into her power as she simultaneously realizes her husband is not who she thought he was in the first blush of romance and that he’s part of a system taking pride in its destruction of a promising young student.
Laura’s been instructed that her only function on campus is to be a “bystander” whose sole function is to provide “a little tea and sympathy” to the boys every once in a while. That she’s just not capable of such benevolent disinterest makes her the quiet hero of Tea and Sympathy. When it first played in 1953, Laura’s final scene with Tom was shocking in the extreme – today, it plays out as an act that’s equal parts mercy and desire. Tummelson nails both of those emotions, ensuring the final moments of the piece live on in the audience’s minds with a wistful intensity.
Tea and Sympathy is also rich with fine supporting performances, including DeFaria as the ambitious teacher who has no patience for his wife’s sensitivities or for boys who don’t live for sports. And as Tom’s supportive – to a point – roommate, Nick Horst does well depicting a teen with a conscience that won’t allow for complete cruelty.
One last thing about Tea and Sympathy: For reasons I won’t pretend to understand, it failed to get Jeff recommended. I’d argue, and vehemently, that the non-recommendation reflects more on the opening night Jeff judges than production. At the risk of stooping a little too low, I’ll say that only a complete Philistine could fail to see the excellence in this exquisitely acted production.