Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing was first performed in London back in 1993, when revealing one’s homosexuality was much scarier, but the play’s themes of forbidden love and the struggle for self-acceptance seem just as germane today—and Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production of the play is thought-provoking and effective.
The story centers around 16-year-old Jamie and his neighbor Ste, also 16, who reside in a row of flats in Thamesmead, a working-class area of South London. Jamie lives with his brassy bartender mother, Sandra, and her current boyfriend, Tony, an artist several years her junior. Ste’s family is quite dysfunctional—his brother is a drug addict, and his angry, alcoholic father is physically abusive. Jamie’s other neighbor is the quirky Leah, who has been expelled from school and now spends her days endlessly listening to Mama Cass records. Ste often stays the night at Jamie’s flat to avoid his father’s beatings, sleeping “top-to-tail” in Jamie’s small bed. On one such occasion, the two teens share a tentative kiss—which unleashes a flood of intense, conflicting emotions for both of them.
Will Jamie and Ste face their fears, embrace their sexual identities and dare to embark on a relationship? Has Sandra finally found her “Mr. Right” in Tony? Does Leah step out of her Mama Cass-obsessed fog and enroll in a new school?
Director Robbie Wayne has assembled a fine cast, and coaxes strong performances from all. Noah Arce is excellent as the shy, awkward Jamie. He is struggling with typical teen issues like school bullying and an often-tense relationship with his mother, in addition to his growing romantic feelings for Ste. His performance is touching and effective.
As the studlier Ste, Robert Garcia is terrific. He, too, is dealing with a lot of angst. Constantly on alert for another pummeling from his father, he’s also grappling with questions about his sexuality. Is what he feels for Jamie just friendship, or could it be something more?
Christine Tringali Nunes brings grit and humor to the role of Sandra. She’s a hard-working single mother loves who loves her son and tries to understand him; their relationship is complicated and volatile. Her love life is unsettled as well: Though her current beau, Tony, is eager to please, he doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill for Sandra.
As Tony, Brent Anderson holds his own. A nice guy and creative type who really does care for Sandra, he’s been thrust into the midst of a lot of family and neighborhood drama.
Rounding out the cast is Ceisley Jefferson as Leah, who tries to numb the pain of adolescent loneliness and exclusion from school with unspecified drugs and the constant blare of Cass Elliot. Leah is sassy and fun. In addition to strong acting chops, Jefferson possesses an excellent singing voice.
Maintaining a believable working-class English accent throughout a two-hour production is not easy, and for the most part, this cast nails it, though there were a few spots here and there during which the accent (or a lack of volume) made lines hard to understand.
The technical facets of Beautiful Thing are quite good—particularly the set. Desert Rose’s new, expanded stage works quite well—and Mama Cass’ greatest hits sprinkled through the play really move it along.
As the valley’s only fully LGBTQ theater, Desert Rose Playhouse is known for choosing gay-themed, edgy material—and Beautiful Thing does not disappoint. No matter what one’s sexual orientation, we can all relate to the anxiety of adolescence, and the magic of young love.
Beautiful Thing is raw, real and intimate—and isn’t that what live theater is all about?
Beautiful Thing is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.