The hate and ignorance of one person can have an amazingly long reach in the lives of those around them. One comment or one opinion—heard by random ears or directed at a loved one—can be so instrumental in the development of another that in one moment, a future tragedy can be born.
This is one of the themes of the new Nick Salamone play, The Sonneteer, having its world premiere in the Davidson/Velentini Theatre at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. Revolving around two generations of an Italian-American family, The Sonneteer is about what happens when the disease of ignorance infects one family.
Opening at the hospital bed of Louie (Paul Haitkin), his fiancé Livvy (Sandra Purpuro) recites a sonnet she clearly has written about her life. These sonnets are sprinkled throughout the show revealing a woman with a talent for words, but without the talent to speak those feelings to the people around her.
We cut to the past where Louie and Livvy are preparing for the birth of their child. Louie is getting out of a marriage that didn’t work and the two have to deal with his outspoken family and friends: quiet brother Michael (Ray Oriel), loud-mouthed sister Vita (Cynthia Gravinese) and mousey family friend Elle (Victoria Hoffman.) All have their own issues and feelings about the situation, but for Louie and Livvy, they are in love and to hell with everyone else.
When Michael accidentally causes a life-threatening accident to Louie while also injuring himself, the family is faced with another crisis. To top it off, Michael’s “best-friend” Joey comes to visit him in the hospital causing more friction in the family. Why? Because Louie found Michael and Joey making out in their house and forbid it to ever happen again. At this point, everyone knows Michael is gay, but everyone wants to shove it under the rug. Including Michael who decides, instead, to rekindle a romance with the clueless Elle in order to save face.
The friendship of this family is further explored after Louie’s passing. Livvy has the baby and stays close to the group. Michael and Joey’s relationship splinters with Michael becoming a closeted introvert, marrying Elle, denying his homosexuality and suffering in silence. Livvy however, goes through a post-partum depression and her life spirals down causing a radical decision at the end of Act One.
Act Two begins 20-plus years later where we check in with the same group. This is when the real theme of the show comes to light. Without giving away too many plot points, most of the issues in this family involve denial and ignorance. And those actions trickle down causing unhappiness, fear and regret. Only one (maybe two) people come out unscathed while the rest suffer at their own expense.
The writing in The Sonneteer is strong and the direction by Jon Lawrence Rivera is simple, yet elegant. But it’s the acting that makes this show soar, and everyone excels in their roles.
Haitken plays a dual role of father and son and the changes in the characters are clearly drawn. At first a tough-guy Italian, he softens as the son who has a life that he refuses to keep silent about. Effective in both performances, Haitkin truly shines, and if they hadn’t already cast the role of Superman, casting directors should have looked no further than Haitken. The resemblance is uncanny.
Purpuro as Livvy is a bundle of complications. At once a happily-in-love new mother-to-be, she soon devolves into a slightly bitter widow, and then a stalwart and close-minded single mom. The most developed of the characters, she delivers a knockout performance that is the connecting thread of the story.
The rest of the ensemble is terrific, each creating a distinct character that we care about, even when we’re angry at them.
What starts out as a tale of one family becomes something more as the effects of what we believe trickle down to everyone around them. It’s a clever and relatable way to show how we can truly affect the people we love.
I remember as a kid I would hear certain comments about gay people. There were the usual gay slurs: fag, faggot, gay-boy, pansy, etc. Those were said almost on a daily basis in one way or another, whether to me or just in passing. But I remember my father saying to me when I brought up the fact that “two guys in my camp had fooled around,” he said that he hoped that none of his kids were that way. Unfortunately, I was actually talking about myself and indeed, I was that way.
While my father eventually came around to understanding me and what I was, at the time, his ignorance scarred me and scared me. I didn’t want to disappoint my father any more than I thought I already had, so right then and there I put myself into the closet and firmly shut the door. I was about 10 at the time and it would take 12 more years for me to finally come out to my family. Two more years to tell my brother and sister, who, upon revealing my secret didn’t seem to care. My sister knew, actually, and had even suggested this to my parents at one point, to which I guess my father responded that he didn’t think so, “but I don’t know.”
I also remember a male family member took me to New York City for my high school graduation. As we walked down 42nd street, a gay guy checked him out. “Faggot,” my companion muttered under his breath. And one step back into the closet I went.
I even remember my father explained what gay people did once. I’m not sure of the context of the conversation, but he gave me some very vile description of what occurred between them behind closed doors. Something that they clearly do not do and would never do, because it was, quite frankly, truly disgusting. But of course, I was impressionable and right then and there, I was like “Oh my God! I don’t want to be gay!!” Deeper I went into the cold, dark closet. I look back now and I laugh (as I’m sure my father would if he were alive.) Based on ignorance he was taught, he stated ridiculous “facts” that I took as truths. He believed that gays were these disgusting things based on lies he heard from others.
And that’s how it starts. Ignorance begets ignorance and that infects those around them.
In The Sonnneteer this ignorance ruins quite a few lives, creating depressed and unhappy individuals, both gay and straight. This is a common occurrence and why we have so many teen suicides and marriages based on a lie. If only people would find out the facts before they blather on and on about something they don’t understand. It baffles me when lawmakers want to make decisions about my life as a gay person, yet they aren’t gay themselves and clearly haven’t taken the time to get to know anyone who is.
If they had, maybe their opinions would change. I challenge those out there who don’t understand homosexuality to take two hours out of your life and sit down with someone who is gay. Ask whatever question you want to ask. We’ll tell you. We’ll give you the honest truth. I bet you’ll come out the other side with a new perspective.
And that education might just save a few lives in the process.
The Sonneteer is playing at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre. Extended through April 17. Tickets can be purchased at lagaycenter.org/boxoffice or by calling (323) 860-7300. Photo by Mikaela Pollock