'Tea and Sympathy' is well served at Spotlighters

Gossip takes on a life of its own in Robert Anderson's "Tea and Sympathy." Although this 1953 play speaks to the reputation-shattering consequences of gossip at a boys boarding school, it still speaks to the presumably more open-minded contemporary audience at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre.

The subject of all that malicious gossip is a 17-year-old student, Tom Lee (Justin Johnson), whose shy personality and cultural interests prompt his fellow students to persecute him for allegedly being gay. Just as the "is he or isn't he" speculation fuels plenty of dormitory rumors, the audience vicariously mulls over the anecdotes and opinions that insistently fly around.

Tom admittedly displays enough stereotypical traits to add more fuel to the already-flaming allegations; indeed, his academic resume includes playing female roles in the school theater productions. The truth of the matter eventually is revealed in an inevitably talky play whose angst-ridden rhetoric certainly reflects the uptight era in which it was written.

Anderson's intention is to expose the corrosive nature of gossip. He's not exactly subtle with his characterization and dialogue, but he gets his point across. The Spotlighters production directed by Fuzz Roark similarly tends to be thematically blunt and ultimately effective.

The play's emotional heart is the unconventional friendship formed between Tom and Laura Reynolds (Karina Ferry), whose husband, Bill (Todd Krickler), is a blustery administrator at the school. As a faculty wife, Laura is expected to offer tea and sympathy to the students. She's meant to be a bit of a maternal surrogate, but in a politely formal sense that does not become too personal.

Laura's genuinely kind personality makes her a welcome presence on campus, and her increasingly strained relations with her domineering husband make it understandable that she would bond with the students. When Bill immediately believes every rumor about Tom, Laura is much more cautious and humane in her response. It's humorously apt that Laura already is sewing a lovely costume that Tom will be wearing in an upcoming show.

The gentle conversations between Laura and Tom firmly place the audience on their side. This emotional identification is bolstered by the prim and proper Laura's lively conversations with another faculty wife, Lilly Sears (Lisa Libowitz), whose more extroverted behavior would make her the life of any school event; and it's further reinforced by Tom's tense conversations with his father, Herbert (Bob Ahrens), who is such a harsh symbol of paternal authority that his every word is a command.

What really wins the audience over, though, is Karina Ferry's warmly engaging performance as Laura. She settles into her character with an ease not shared by everybody else in the cast. Although Justin Johnson gives a moving performance as Tom, he often seems too obvious as he adopts the nervous mannerisms of an admittedly self-conscious character.

The supporting players are capable, but generally seem like they would benefit from more rehearsal time. Todd Krickler as Bill Reynolds, for instance, has enough slight hesitations with his line readings to make his forceful character appear lacking in confidence. Krickler's delivery became more fluid as the reviewed performance went on, however, indicating that it can take a while to settle into a character.

It's also encouraging that others in the cast already have the emotional conviction to make their characters come alive. Jose Teneza conveys the uneasiness of a teacher, David Harris, pulled into the web of gossip, and Shawn Naar, Dennis Binseel and Kevin D. Baker give energetic performances as three accusation-slinging students.

Also persuasive are the period furnishings that establish the boarding school setting. Although it makes sense to have the main in-the-round space function as the Reynolds' living room, it means that Tom's dorm room is tucked away in a corner of the theater space. This works fairly well for scenes emphasizing his sense of isolation, but the play's crucial final scene won't be seen very well by spectators sitting on the other side of the theater.

The dramatic impact of an oft-quoted speech in that scene consequently is somewhat muted. Fortunately, the play's anti-bullying message still comes across. Spread the word that this production is worth seeing.

"Tea and Sympathy" runs through Nov. 6 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., in Baltimore. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors and $16 for students. Call 410-752-1225 or go to http://www.spotlighters.org.

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