A Third Look at Farm Boys

Dave and I saw Farm Boys at the New Conservatory Theater one more time last Sunday. It plays for one more weekend, last chance to catch it. The house was sadly far from full on Sunday afternoon (not uncommon for a play that’s extended its run — so much of the publicity has gone out with the old closing date that it’s hard to get the word out that the play is still running), so I feel the urge to do a little evangelism. Go see it. You can probably even get half-price tickets at Theater Bay Area or Goldstar, which will allow you to see it twice for the price of a regular ticket, and the play both benefits from and deserves being seen twice.

Even though, as I’ve said, I think there’s more elusiveness in the writing than is good for a play, Farm Boys has at its core a story that I found honest, moving, and poetic. It’s about a man going back to the place where he spent his unhappy childhood, about him facing up to the regrets of his past, about having to forgive himself for the angry young men he once was and most of all for the misunderstandings and hurts he caused without intending to, just from having been so armored against the world around him that he failed to recognize honest love when it was offered to him.

I grew up in the ‘burbs of Orange County, California, and not the farms of Colby, Wisconsin, but let’s just say it hasn’t been hard to see parallels.

This time around I was familiar enough with the play to pay more attention to its construction, both for good and for bad. Actually, in terms of dramatic technique, I found more to carp with than savor. Sometimes I wanted to stop the play and say, no, no, please listen to me, please don’t let your characters change the subject here, not yet, you’ve just got to let them express themselves more strongly so we know more clearly what’s in their hearts and not have to infer it gradually over the course of the play from all this roundabout suggestive hinting.

The great strength of the play is not its construction, but that all that roundabout suggestive hinting also contains much lovely and authentic and deeply moving poetic dialogue, and tells the story of a brief relationship between two men that is like none I can ever remember seeing or reading, yet rings (to my ear, anyway) very true. I know it doesn’t sound like much out of context, but I am going to be haunted for a good long time by the lines “How far did you run, John? Was it far enough?” They come at the climax of the play and I tear up just typing them and remembering the moment, the mixture of sweetness and painful regret they encompass.

The theatrical flair with which the play mixes realistic scenes, conversations with a ghost, soliloquys for the ghost in an afterworld that looks like a beach on Fire Island, and 20-year-old flashbacks, is stunning. The actors do an amazing job of switching modes in the blink of a lighting change.

Yet I also wish the writers had been more willing to signal to the audience early on what the scheme was. I understand the delight of letting your audience gradually figure out what’s going on over the course of the play, and I do remember the pleasure I felt the first time I saw it, when during the first speech in the second act it dawned on me what the beach was all about. But I think there would have been even greater pleasure in being able to appreciate the subtle magic in the first act more fully without having to see the play a second time.

Given that anyone who decides to go after reading this is probably only going to get to see it once anyway, I feel like I want to give a few hints, hopefully not enough to spoil the pleasure of finding things out but just enough to help you keep your bearings through the play and appreciate more of it the first time around. So if you’re going to go see it and you hate even mild spoilers, stop reading here right now and skip to the next entry, because I’m about to give away a short list of

Things I Wish Were Made Clearer Earlier in the Play

  1. As the play starts, Lyle has just died. The beach is his afterworld.
  2. In addition to Lyle’s soliloquys on the beach, the play shifts — sometimes suddenly — between scenes in the present and memories of Lyle and John’s relationship 20 years in the past.
  3. When Lyle is lit with yellow light, he is a ghost and the time is the present. The lighting changes when we flip into a memory.

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