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'Tea and Sympathy,' classic drama about becoming a man, opens Friday at Corn Stock

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There is a question posed in the next play offered at Corn Stock Theatre’s Winter Playhouse that is subtle, but no less relevant to life today as in yesteryear. It is the question of who decides what is normal.

In “Tea and Sympathy,” which opens Friday for a six-show run, the specific question goes to sexual norms, and director Rebekah Bourland said if nothing else the dialogue of the 1953 classic drama will causes audiences to think.

Bourland, in fact, cites dialogue from one character, Laura, who reaches the conclusion that it should be woman who decide what makes a man, not man. “Manliness is not all swagger and mountain climbing. It’s also tenderness,” Laura says to Tom.

Bourland said she hopes audiences will consider the dialogue carefully.

“When you look at the way things are, men decide what is masculine. If a man doesn’t like football, his wife is thrilled but his buddies think it makes him less manly. Shouldn’t it matter more what his wife thinks? But in most cases, it is the man who decides what makes a man and what makes a woman,” Bourland said.

“Tea and Sympathy” tells of the dilemma facing Tom, a student at a private all-male school who is accused of being a homosexual partly because he doesn’t participate in the same physical activities as the other boys and because of his sensitive nature. Other events only lead to more accusations and even to bullying by other students and the master of the house in which he lives.

To help Tom through the tough time the house master’s beautiful wife, Laura, befriends him and the affection they have for each other leads her to reach out to him in the only way she knows how.

Written by Robert Anderson, “Tea and Sympathy” was perhaps the first American play to look closely at the issue of homosexuality and how it is treated by others. But Bourland said it is not a particularly heavy play. “It is a play that makes you think and I like that. I hope audience will realize people do or like things that they like and we tend to put them into boxes, which isn’t fair,” she said.

Still, she noted, at the play’s end she wants the audience to wonder what Tom will become later in life.

Bourland said she submitted to direct “Tea and Sympathy” because she has always loved the way the play is written, in a “very conversational way that is easy to listen to. Like much of theatre from that era, it is a real story about real people and I have always enjoyed that kind of drama, the kind you can understand and feel.”

She said her cast, which is a mix of Corn Stock newcomers and community theatre veterans, understands the script well and bring her vision out the way she wanted.

Tom is portrayed by Nick Seaman, a freshman at Illinois Central College who is making his Winter Playhouse debut. That also is true of Amy Sanders, who portrays Laura, and Brian Haas, who portrays Tom’s best friend, Al. Courtney Arnett, who is Lilly, is making her Corn Stock debut after a successful portrayal of Babette in “Beauty and the Beast” at Peoria Players.

Jeramie Glass, last seen in “Of Mice and Men” last winter at Corn Stock, portrays the house master Bill, Jake Van Hoorn is Ralph, Richard Smith is Harris and Nathanial Anderson is Steve.

Doug Orear portrays Tom’ father, Herb, who struggles as much as the others to understand his son.

Show time is 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday of this week, 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 18, and 19 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and can be reserved by calling 676-2196.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).