Philadelphian R. Eric Thomas can spin one heck of a story. Whether he's speaking on local podcasts, hosting storytelling competitions, or writing fiction, his narratives engage and entertain with his humor and wry musings. (Full disclosure: I worked as an editor when Thomas wrote for Thinking Dance, where his side-splitting commentary enlivened staff meetings.)
Simpatico Theatre Project's staging of Thomas' new play Time is on Our Side shows that, beyond just telling a tale, Thomas understands how a story can affect the lives of all who hear it.
Annie (Kristen Norine) and Curtis (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) host a cheeky, social justice-themed podcast about historical Philadelphia landmarks (current episode: stops on the Underground Railroad). Annie plays the serious foil to Curtis' irreverent imagination, such as when he wonders how Harriet Tubman would act today ("swipe right for freedom!").
One subject both shy away from: the famous though clouded Philadelphia lives of their own families. But then the pair discover a journal. It once belonged to Annie's grandmother and intimates a lesbian relationship. Curtis sees a salacious scandal that could propel them onto NPR, while Annie, quite rightly, protects the past of a woman she grew up idolizing.
A superbly crafted two-hour mystery follows, one rich in anecdotes about the lives of gays in Philadelphia and the role of familiar locales (Tavern on Camac, Schuylkill River Park). The plot engages on multiple levels. It's a tale of friendship sabotaged for personal gain, the choices gay men and women once made to protect their identities, the delicate balance between the private and the shared, and who has a right to tell them.
Director Jarrod Markman uses his fine cast to balance all these elements, particularly the blend of ridiculous characters and their clever, almost philosophical musings. Brandi Burgess and Ryan Walter deliver honed performances as, respectively, a film-and-comedian-quoting "walking book of gay history" and a caftan-wearing voice actor. The dialogue blasts through each scene like a shotgun, peppered with references to pop culture (some odd, like one particular Back to the Future aside), alongside pointed questions about authorship, and it contains the funniest 9/11 joke I've heard. Elizabeth Atkinson's sound design grounds the narrative with softly played phrases from past scenes. These echo like undercurrents in an underground river of emotions.
From a small set of subcultures, Thomas creates an entire world with seeming room for all of humanity's hopes and dreams, foibles and longings. He understands his own generation, from the annoying condescension of the partially educated who sneer "that's problematic" when challenged, to the way many of them float listlessly through complicated emotions, semi-careers, and titles of no real importance. Nonetheless, they try, like all generations, to carve out stable identities - something we might call stories, that one day they too could tell.
Through June 26 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 1512 Spruce St. Tickets: $20-$25. Information: 267-437-7529 or simpaticotheatre.org