Coming out means more than you think, because everyone has secrets.
In Jeff Baron’s play Visiting Mr. Green, the revelation of secrets (and the ways people deal with them) probes the nerve centers of bigotry and prejudice.
Set to open March 1 at Blue Ridge Community College, the play begins with a fast-track yuppie’s first visit to an elderly Jewish man, Mr. Green. Ross, a young American Express executive who nearly ran over Mr. Green, has been sentenced to do community service. Once a week, he must visit the older man and help with such tasks as cleaning house. Crotchety and recently widowed, Mr. Green has little left to live for.
Ross is gay. Mr. Green, who has his own secrets, thinks all good Jewish boys should marry and have children.
“People can be so self-righteous about their own persecutions but be blind to their own bigotry,” says Baron. Mr. Green rails about the persecution of the Jews; Ross bemoans his own father’s intolerance toward gays. Through dialogue, however, the two men resolve these and other conflicts encountered in their weekly meetings.
The story parallels Baron’s own life: Like Ross, he worked for corporate giant American Express (“What do we make? Money,” Ross muses after Mr. Green quizzes him about his job). A friend of Baron’s had to do community service with the elderly, and Baron himself cared for his aging grandmother. The playwright is gay — and all too familiar with the way friends and family often don’t want to talk about it when you come out.
Baron recalls, “A lot happened [between my grandmother and me] that was sad and funny.” He became part of her day-to-day life, bringing groceries and cleaning house as Ross does for Mr. Green. Baron’s grandmother, he says, was a lot like Mr. Green — old-fashioned and set in her ways. In the time he cared for her, he got “comfortable with being gay [and] after she died, it was time to write,” says Baron.
He had written screenplays for film and TV, but his work was either changed or dropped. “I couldn’t do another one of those,” says Baron, and he turned to writing a play.
Andy Reed, who’s directing the Belfry Players’ March production at Blue Ridge, remarks: “In traditional terms, it’s a comedy. There’s drama, but with a lot of humor; and in the end, all is resolved.”
Reed notes the joys of directing a two-person play: “There are no extraneous characters. You see events in real time, and you see [the characters only] when they’re with each other.”
And then there are the challenges: As a director, “you have to find an actor old enough to play Mr. Green but who can remember his lines, and a man who can be convincing in portraying a Lower East Side Jewish man,” says Reed with a mix of straight talk and humor. “And you’ve also got to find a young actor who’s willing to play a gay man.”
Mr. Green will be portrayed locally by Ernie Thurston, the veteran of many a Montford Park Players production. Ross is played by the up-and-coming Joseph Guice, who admits he had trouble relating to his character’s gayness until he connected it to the trouble he had convincing his own father that acting was a serious career choice.
“I was nervous at first,” says Guice. But he had absorbed Oscar winner Kevin Spacey’s remark in an “Actors Studio” interview that “you have to embrace the role” (Spacey played a gay antiques dealer in the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). “Ross is gay, but he has spent his whole life trying to pretend he’s straight,” says Guice. That uneasiness made it simpler for the actor to “play” at repressed “gay” mannerisms.
Mr. Green, on the other hand, has given up on life, says Thurston. His wife was warm and caring, did everything around the house — and, perhaps, kept him human. “Now he’s lost that,” Thurston reflects. And in Mr. Green’s past, there’s a family secret that he has repressed.
The play, Guice adds, “is about two people who have a lot of issues and find a friend — in the least likely place.”
Visiting Mr. Green has played all over the world — from Tel Aviv to San Francisco — and won numerous awards. Yet Baron finds a simple pleasure in visiting as many of the productions as he can, wherever they may be: “Personally, as for nudging people in the right direction, I like [the play being produced] in small towns,” says Baron, mentioning a particular producion in Ohio.
Interestingly, Baron found an undertone of prejudice in one of the most cosmopolitan and open-minded places Visiting has been produced — Amsterdam.
He’s seen the play performed in Greek, in Dutch, in Portuguese and in French; in small theaters and large; and with famous actors like Eli Wallach in the lead. “Each time, it’s different, and when I can go [see a production], I do. It’s a writer’s dream to see your work performed,” says Baron.
So he’ll be on hand for the Belfry Players’ March 2 performance, ready to answer questions.
Folks might just learn something.