Arts theater review

Coping with trauma abroad

The world premiere of ‘A Guide for the Homesick’ examines gay identity, betrayal, and acceptance in contemporary times

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Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III in 'A Guide for the Homesick.'
T. Charles Erickson

A Guide for the Homesick

Written by Ken Urban

Directed by Colman Domingo

Oct. 6 – Nov. 4, 2017

Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts

In a seedy hotel room in Amsterdam, two strangers connect and struggle as they wrestle with their pasts. With this simple premise, Ken Urban crafts a story which explores betrayal by those dearest to us and the psychological trauma brought on by volunteering in foreign aid efforts. Central to these conflicts are the issues of grappling with sexuality and coming out in a contemporary age of purported acceptance. Urban, who is an MIT Senior Lecturer, drew inspiration from self-conducted interviews with Doctors Without Borders participants and the violence against LGBT people in Uganda. Supported by high energy performances by its two actors, the result is a riveting drama which tackles these issues in a densely packed 75 minutes.

The two strangers are Teddy and Jeremy: Teddy is a charismatic businessman who invites Jeremy up to his room after conversing in the bar. Despite his intentions, he reveals early on that his friend has gone missing after an episode of manic depression and his own desire for company. On the other hand, Jeremy is a nervous Harvard graduate who recently finished a volunteer aid effort in Uganda. While it is tempting to draw comparisons with other neurotic gay Jewish characters in theatre such as Angels in America’s Louis Ironson or William Finn’s Marvin, Jeremy’s main motivations stem from his trauma and guilt as a nurse. Despite their repeated unwillingness to admit the truth of their betrayals, Urban’s dialogue continuously fleshes out these characters, creating powerful and sympathetic scenes as their stories unravel.

McKinley Belcher III (Teddy) and Samuel H. Levine (Jeremy) both give powerhouse performances in their respective roles, showing great versatility as memories suddenly enter the narrative. Even more impressive is their grasp on their characters when identities begin to blur as in Angels in America. As the niceties finish, Belcher provides a gripping physicality which is matched by Levine as his own character navigates through self-loathing and mental breakdowns. There are some points in their beginning interactions which feel artificial, but the brokenness of their characters and their emotional depth make me question if it is an intentional decision.

The set design effectively communicates the themes of space and time in the play. The walls of the set convey the hotel room’s intimate and cramped nature, evoking the symbolism of the room both as a temporary bubble from the outside world and as the closet for LGBT people. However, with shifts in lighting, the memories of past and present occupants invade the hotel room, transporting scenes across space and time. Despite the narrative complexities of the play, the lighting changes and dialogue shifts made these transitions in setting very clear.

As Urban notes in his research, the teachings of evangelical American pastors, even from Massachusetts, transformed the sentiment towards LGBT people in Uganda from indifference to the persecution they face there now. Witnessing this violence shatters the hopeful idealism that Jeremy’s sheltered upbringing nurtured in him, while Teddy’s interactions with his friend leading up to his disappearance haunt him equally. As their time in the hotel finally runs out, we, the audience, are left to ponder the question alluded to by the title: how do we go back home?