|Danyelle Tinker ("Suzanne") and Jason A. England ("David"). Photo by Garry Bastian photography.|
By Tina Arth
Jonathan Tolins’ hard-hitting tragicomedy, Twilight of the Golds, opened in 1993 – the same year that Seinfeld fans made the phrase “not that there’s anything wrong with that” a cultural icon. These are not unrelated phenomena, as the play explicitly revolves around a Jewish family in New York dealing with issues of tolerance and homosexuality. However, the play’s slightly futuristic and sci-fi flavor allows (actually, requires) the audience to view both gayness and genetic research as metaphors for a much broader set of ethical and moral questions. Twilight Theater Company director Ronald Jorgensen and his mighty five-person cast present a carefully paced show that fluctuates between stereotypical (but terribly funny) humor and gut-wrenching emotional expression.
Suzanne Gold-Stein and husband Rob Stein are celebrating their third anniversary with her very close, very loving family – parents Phyllis and Walter and her obviously gay, but only occasionally campy brother David. Suzanne waits until the family is together to announce that she is pregnant. Genetic researcher Rob reveals that his employer may be willing to do an experimental amniocentesis and DNA analysis of the fetus, just to make sure nothing is wrong. Here’s where the sci-fi aspect emerges, as the test results come in: the baby is fine, but is 90% likely to be “like David” (i.e., gay). The story then revolves around the family’s reaction, and in particular the possibility that Suzanne might choose to abort the baby. How does a relatively liberal Jewish family with a much-loved gay son/brother feel about this, particularly in 1993, the year that U.S. AIDS diagnoses peaked? How do they reconcile an intuitive aversion to eugenics, especially powerful in any post-WW II Jewish family, with a woman’s right to choose?
Given that issues of nature vs. nurture and genetics research even in 2016 render the 90% “like David” diagnosis utterly implausible, one can (but should not) dismiss the plot as naïve and irrelevant. It’s not a huge stretch, after all, to expand the conversation to include transgender identity, autism, and other “defects” that are not necessarily predictive of extreme suffering or devastating illness. Leaving legal issues out of the equation, what are the moral implications of terminating a pregnancy, not because the family or woman is unable or unwilling to raise a baby but because they don’t want to raise this baby? Can we assume that a gay, or black, or transgender, or autistic, or even female adult is by definition disadvantaged and would be better off with the more culturally powerful status of straight, white, “normal” male?
For the story to work, we need to believe that the Golds are inherently likeable, good-hearted people – people a lot like us. This is where Twilight of the Golds really sparkles. Jodi Rafkin (Phyllis) creates a perfect Jewish mother – over-the-top warm, intensely involved and lovingly manipulative toward both of her offspring. She controls her accent and delivery so that the humor and pathos come through without a hint of parody. Chandano Fuller (Walter) captures the contradictions of his role – apparently self-centered, clearly used to being the alpha male, but revealing his doting father side by secretly doling out cash to his kids and by refusing to kvetch about their choices. Danyelle Tinker (Suzanne) and Jason A. England (David) have great chemistry as the closely bonded sister and brother who seem to be unquestionably accepting of the others’ faults – the bitter poignancy of their ultimate disagreement is testimony to their believability. The only character we don’t need to love is Rob, and William Ferguson does a fine balancing act – part cold scientist, part emotional outcast because he will never really penetrate the loving shell around the nuclear Gold family.
With the IKEA-feel of the Gold-Stein apartment and a few kitschy touches in the Gold’s dining room, JJ Abrams sketches the yuppie design of the era. Robin Pair’s lighting design eliminates the need for scene changes and keeps the action flowing, and his special effects (in combination with Ilana Watson’s sound design) create brief but striking operatic interludes. I was especially struck by the subtly appropriate costumes – small touches like ‘90s appropriate pantyhose, Phyllis’ bouffant hairdo, and that tiny Izod alligator helped me to absorb the action from the perspective of the era.
Because of mature themes and language, Twilight of the Golds is not appropriate for younger audiences. Beyond that, I would enthusiastically recommend that local audiences take advantage of the opportunity to see this rarely produced, powerful, funny, thought-provoking show.
Twilight Theater Company’s production of Twilight of the Golds is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, April 16th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.