Front Row Reviews

Torch Song, a Drag Queen’s Lament

Marin Theatre’s “Torch Song” delivers a magnificent heart-rending journey of a drag queen’s quest for love, respect, and acceptance.  

We meet fast-talking, gregarious Arnold Beckoff (Dean Linnard) dressed in a shimmering gown performing drag under a 1980s theatre marquee. Arnold sings the soulful “I See Two Lovers,” by Helen Morgan, adding comic twists that mask its torch-song quality. Linnard’s standout performance masterfully portrays Arnold’s loneliness and struggle to gain respect and honesty with cunning wit and exaggerated humor.

Mutual sparks fly when Arnold meets the low-key, bisexual Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones), the calm Yin to his high-speed Yang. However, Ed wrestles with his closeted sexuality, fearing society’s expectations and punishments. Soft-spoken Jones realistically portrays the hesitant, anxious Ed. He constantly hides his true self behind the “civilized normalcy” of washing dishes and dating women.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein’s 1980’s “Torch Song” aptly recounts the harrowing, sad history of the AIDS epidemic. Fierstein showcases a dark, backroom sex den, one of which Arnold’s unseen and unheard friend, Murray, introduces him to. Although humorously played, the scene is an effective reminder of what gays had to endure to find sexual freedom.

As the song “There He Goes Again,” by Patsy Cline, fades in the background, so does Arnold’s and Ed’s relationship. Arnold’s yearning for genuine love conflicts with Ed’s discomfort with his own identity. Ed soon marries his loving girlfriend, Laurel (Kina Kantor). Arnold quips later, “Well, isn’t that a kick in the rubber butt?”

Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones) and Laurel (Kina Kantor), Arnold (Dean Linnard) and Alan (Edric Young)

As Bach’s “Fugue in G Minor” hangs in the air, the entertaining second act unfolds on a stage covered by a huge vertical bed. At Arnold’s and Laurel’s summer home, four characters slip and slide under the sheets from partner to partner. Ed yearns for Arnold’s acceptance and love, while Arnold engages with his new lover, playful Alan (Edric Young). Young portrays the sweet innocent with charm and grace. Arnold later laments to Alan, “The innocent must suffer, not the guilty; this is America,” foreshadowing what is to come. Meanwhile, Laurel bemoans, with Alan, her need to date bisexuals.  

In the powerful final act, Arnold tries to cope with Alan’s hate-crime death, and adopts a teenage gay delinquent named David (Joe Ayers). Ayers enhances the scene, bringing a vivacious energy to the role, with spontaneous over-the-top adolescent reactions and moodiness. Arnold’s apartment spreads across the stage, decorated with 80’s furniture, pictures, and dressed mannequins all artfully staged by Scenic Designer Sarah Phykitt.

From L to R: Mrs. Beckoff (Nancy Carlin) and Arnold (Dean Linnard)

Who barrels into his apartment as if she owns it? Discriminating and domineering Mom Beckoff, played articulately by Nancy Carlin. Arnold fights for her respect and acceptance of his life choices. She undermines Arnold’s role as David’s father. In their intense argument, they are screaming at each other at the same time, different words, opposite meanings. The morning’s song, “Good Morning Heartbreak,” underscores their emotional anguish and separation, even though they wear the same pink slippers.

Director Evren Odcikin skillfully weaves together all the various elements of this complex classic. The depth and breadth of the characters shine through in this piece. Kudos go to Sound Designer Lana Palmer for the background music pieces that enhanced the feeling in the play.

“Torch Song” is a gripping spotlight on the constant challenges that faced the gay community depicted in the 1980’s. Much of the prejudice is still present today in political, social, religious, and sexual biases.  A must see.

“Torch Song” written by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Evren Odcikin, Lighting Design by Ray Oppenheimer, Costume Design by Jessie Amoroso at Marin Theatre, Mill Valley, California Info: www. Marin Theatre. Org-Show runs to Sunday, June 2, 2024

Cast: Joe Ayers, Nancy Carlin, Patrick Andrew Jones, Kina Kantor, Dean Linnard, Edric Young

Banner: Dean Linnard, Photo by David Allen