Saturday, November 30, 2013

Back to the '90s

I went this afternoon to see The Vast Difference at The Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan. The play, by noted Michigan writer Jeff Daniels (he also acts) first premiered at The Purple Rose twenty years ago.

The program listed the time of the play as 1993, and there seemed to be no effort to update the script. In one of the first scenes, a character is playing a CD on a Discman as he waits for his plane to be cleared for take-off. It was probably best there was no attempt to update details, since the plot involved men insecure in their masculinity who talk openly about their fears of being castrated by powerful career women. Even in the early '90s this probably sounded backward-looking, and today it very much feels like a period piece.

In the play, George Noonan (played with comic zeal by David Bendena) is getting ready to go in for a vasectomy. (The play's title is a pun on the technical name for part of the male anatomy.) A married male flight attendant with five daughters, George is thrown for a loop when his urologist turns out to be an attractive woman (played by the cool and confident Rhiannon Ragland). She has a no-nonsense approach to operating on the male anatomy. This makes George more than a little uneasy, as it is not just his private parts that can be a little sensitive.

While the gender politics of the play seemed rooted in the past, it turns out that George's struggles are not mainly with his doctor, nor with his wife (Stephanie Buck, making her professional acting debut), but with his father, Earl Noonan (played by veteran actor Richard McWilliams). Earl appears repeatedly in both flashbacks and fantasy sequences. A loving father, a neighborhood barber, and an avid Tigers fan, Earl represents an ideal of masculinity his son can never achieve. Even as George looks back lovingly at his father, however, he continues to wonder if his boyhood hero was ever really as great as he remembers him.

Though my own response to the play was lukewarm, most people in the audience were clearly enjoying it. It's great to see that a Purple Rose blooms in Chelsea.