February 29, 2012.By Renee Valois, Pioneer Press.
There's a lot of ugliness in the low-end working-class world of Thamesmead, London, in which Jamie and Ste find themselves - and each other. Their budding relationship is the "Beautiful Thing" of their play's title, and it colors their complicated lives with hope in Theater Latte Da's absorbing regional premiere of Jonathan Harvey's play.
Given the national attention the Anoka-Hennepin School District has been receiving on the topic of gay bullying, the production is very timely - in spite of the fact that it was originally written in the 1990s.
The show takes place in front of the flats where 15-year-old Jamie lives with his barmaid mother, Sandra, between drop-out Leah and her mother, and Ste and his abusive, alcoholic father. Leah is obsessed with the late singer Mama Cass and Ste is into sports - which Jamie avoids because it leads to bullying by his classmates.
After Ste suffers a particularly bad beating, Sandra invites him to stay overnight with them - where he shares a bed with Jamie. The boys treat each other with tenderness in a world that has often been cruel - and they begin to fall in love.
Steven Lee Johnson as Jamie and David Darrow as Ste earn our empathy with strong, sensitive performances and Jennifer Blagen does a stellar turn as Sandra, the tough barmaid who is wounded by her son's moves toward separation and new love, but never stops pursuing her ambitions for a better life.
Director Jeremy B. Cohen pulls plenty of passion and sparks out of his fine performers, especially during a knock-down physical fight between Jamie and Sandra that ironically shows the depths of their love in their fury to hurt each other.
Cohen's addition of Mama Cass as a character who supplies commentary-like songs between and during scenes illuminates the show in an inspiring new way. Erin Schwab's cheerful face and sweet singing add strands of hope every time she steps on stage, relieving some of the darkness with tunes such as "Safe in My Garden," "Make Your Own Kind of Music" and "Dream a Little Dream of Me."
The monolithic scenic design by Michael Hoover is a presence in itself, lifting the flats high above the audience, with lots of dark space underneath for the band to inhabit. The towering set allows Cohen to make as much use of the vertical space as the horizontal in the Lab Theatre's cavernous old warehouse.
But it also puts the cast much further away from the audience than is typical - making them feel a bit removed, as if we are watching a movie versus a live play. Only the few scenes in Jamie's bedroom take place on the closer floor of the theater, making them feel more intimate.
Ultimately, Cohen's risks pay off. His fresh staging of the story of young gay love adds engaging elements that deepen its appeal - which is a beautiful thing.