Reflections of a Rock Lobster by Burgess Clark, based on the true story of Aaron Fricke, Boston Children’s Theatre, Wimberley Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts, 3/3/12-3/11/12, http://bostonchildrenstheatre.org/season/rocklobster/.
Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook
(Boston, MA) To be a gay teen often has meant living every moment in hostile territory, where everything you do is wrong because of who you are. Too often, it has meant years of enforced isolation and violence.
This is what the Boston Children’s Theatre production of Reflections of a Rock Lobster does best, creating the claustrophobia of a gay teen’s world where everything feels hostile, including one’s own feelings. The play, put on by the Boston Children’s Theatre with a few grown-ups thrown in the mix, chronicles the true story of a pair of trailblazing gay teens who in 1980 challenged their school’s ban on same-sex couples at the prom and made the world a little bit less hostile. It’s difficult to pull off a play about social change without sinking into an overabundance of earnestness. At its worst, such a play can seem like an ABC afterschool special or a “special episode” of the Facts of Life. Most productions can only hope to the middling level of a so-so Denzel Washington drama. Reflections, too, struggles with the weight of its earnestness, but it stays on track thanks to good pacing and a handful of strong performances by the cast that appear effortless.
It’s 1980 and Aaron Fricke (Ian Shain) can no longer avoid the sinking feeling that he’s gay. Living with this fact in high school has been like running a daily gauntlet of violence, and Aaron only finds temporary comfort in a dysfunctional affair and a sweet friendship with a hypochondriac genius, Claudia Cooper (Sophia Pekowsky). Suicide is on the tip of his tongue.
Now in his senior year, Aaron just wants to keep his armor up, but then he meets Paul, an openly gay teen who has the attitude and the look of an escapee from the Ramones. Together the two risk everything, including the love of their families, for the rights to be who they are and to take whom they want to the prom.
Shain is strong as Aaron and Teich’s Paul provides the perfect irritant to open up Aaron’s shell. Both young actors excel at hitting a few notes very well in their performances, and it could be a treat to see them fill in the blanks of the characters they create in the future. Shain does best when he is in rapid-fire dialogue with others on stage, but the play lags when he is asked to do too much heavy lifting in an overabundance of descriptive asides. Scriptwriter Burgess Clark seems not to have enough faith in the power of the scenes he creates, and sometimes feels compelled to explain too much before and after the action.
Clark writes best here when he is playing with language to flesh out the story. Simple words and phrases, some hateful and some affirming, are repeated by characters to great effect. Pekowsky uses Claudia Cooper’s sparse lines to create some sweet moments in the play, even though Claudia almost sounds like a genius toddler in her repeating word choice.
But what holds this play together is the natural and painful interaction between Aaron’s parents, Loretta and Walter Fricke (played by real husband-wife team Paula Plum and Richard Snee). When these two grapple with their son’s homosexuality, a societal issue becomes a human one. Snee especially shines as Walter, a decent man who lacks the words throughout most of the play to hold his family together. Both his and Plum’s performances steer this play away from the earnestness ditch.
The production value of this play is scarily good, be it the bloody fight scenes or the terrible eighties haircuts that I used to think were cool. It augments the relaxed feel of this production, as if the characters in this play aren’t acting, but living. Or in the case of Aaron, trying to survive.