Who knows a person best: A spouse, a parent, a lover? How can people who all claim to have the greatest closeness to someone have totally different perceptions of who that person is?
PrideArts in Chicago is exploring those questions with the American premiere of a four-person musical by Australian writer Jye Bryant. In The Things I Could Never Tell Steven, Steven’s father, mother, wife and on-again/off-again boyfriend all have definite visions of a perfect Steven and the seemingly special relationship they have with him. Steven himself never makes an appearance except as a center-stage projection that always obscures his face.
Directed by PrideArts’ new artistic director, Jay Españo, in the newly renovated Pride Arts Center, the musical opens a season built around the theme of “the search for one’s identity.” It’s easy to at first get sucked into the idea that the play is about Steven and his identity – after all, it’s his name in the title, right? But it’s soon apparent that it is far more about the other nameless characters who are defined only by their relationship to Steven.
The opening number, “Then You’d Know,” marks one of only three ensemble songs, bringing the four characters onstage together to sing their praises of Steven before they scatter into their four corners of the two-story set designed by Foiles, set and prop designer.
The Mother, played by Kyra Leigh, is devoted to the idea of her son. Of the four, hers is the character who falls most into a stock rendering, a smothering mother whose son can do no wrong and for whom no girl will ever be good enough—and it would never occur to her that she might need to ask whether she would find a son-in-law to be up to snuff. Leigh never tries to make her sympathetic, and certainly that fits well into the part Bryant wrote for her. Leigh does an extremely good job in creating a character that is consistently comic, yet The Mother invites the audience to question how she has contributed to who her son now is.
Carl Herzog makes his PrideArts debut as The Father, a conventional, thoughtful figure who expresses his pride for his son in private, but is reserved and unable to share the deep emotions he shares with Steven. His number “Three Small Words” is heartbreaking as he acknowledges the generational inability to put into words the feelings that fathers have for their sons and his hope that—as he sings at the end in the other ensemble piece–“Steven Knows.” Herzog has one of those voices that fills a room and makes the walls vibrate. He’s mastered that fine art of holding back just enough so that the audience responds with empathy, finishing his emotional sentences for him.
It’s easy to respond with confusion at first to the character known only as “Wife,” as she sings about her impending wedding because the audience knows that Steven has an ex-boyfriend and they’re left to wonder if she knows. Elissa Newcorn puts in a haunting performance as she travels from madly in love to anxious to hurt to vengeful. She manages to travel the character’s arc with bold choices that invite pity because she cannot see the heartbreak the audience knows is inevitable. Like Herzog, she has a powerful, passionate voice.
Nate Hall’s character is called “The Ex,” though it is soon clear that the “ex” status isn’t quite accurate even if it makes his first song, “Sex with an Ex,” fun and hilarious. He starts out in an almost comic role, the least sentimental about Steven. However, Hall expertly reveals that his feelings for Steven are more than mere lust and what he needs from him is something he is unlikely to get. By the end, the Ex may have the most realistic view of Steven and the harm he does to those who love him. Hall makes sure that the audience can take his journey with him and throws out challenging questions of what it is like to be in a relationship with someone who is mostly closeted and reluctant to shatter the images others have of him.
While all four characters are devoted to Steven, it’s soon clear through their constant phone calls and unreturned messages that he doesn’t value them as much as they deserve. They all, each in their own way, worship him, but he’s not a very likeable character and they all must eventually learn to let go of their obsessions with him—or rather, with their ideas of him.
Foiles creates a four-square stage where each character has his or her own room that speaks to their individual personalities—on the first level, the near-garish kitchen for the mother and the masculine den for the father; on the second level, the upscale living room for the wife and the sex-soaked bedroom for the Ex. Dividing them in the center first floor is a thin screen for projections, the only place we ever see glimpses of Steven.
The top floor division is where music director Robert Ollis sits with his keyboard, able to conduct from center stage. He provides all the music, supporting each soloist and ramping it up for the ensemble pieces. The space is so intimate and the voices are so strong that it is tempting to wonder how much better they might have sounded if they hadn’t been electronically amplified with microphones—but that is a daring choice few musical directors outside of opera make.
Ollis leads the four performers in 19 songs, sung revue-style with a strong narrative that takes each character chronologically through the major changes in their relationship with Steven. While the songs may not be hummable, they are something better: meaningful and compelling stories that showcase the musical talents of each singer.
Given the limited space of the stage and each character’s portion of it, there is little choreography. Even the blocking is limited, most movement relies on the change from one character to the next.
Costume designer Isaac Jay Pineda contributes to the uniqueness of each character and underscores how different their personalities are by the way he garbs them—whether in a delicate wedding dress, a sexy harness with heart-adorned jock strap, a conservative suit or a floral housedress. He provides the characters with new costumes for nearly every song, always aligned with their personality and moment in the story.
Lighting Designer Kentrell (Trey) Brazeal and Media Designer Jordan Ratliff form a close partnership to draw the audiences’ eyes to where they need to be, again giving each character individual looks and filling in gaps created by Steven’s absence from the script.
The relevant and timely musical, populated by isolated characters lost in unrealistic expectations and hero-worship, challenges the audience to question their own relationships macro and micro and to determine how they might do better with the Stevens in their lives.
Jye Bryant is a musical theater composer, lyricist, producer and author based in Sydney, Australia. Committed to theater, education and social justice, his goal is to inspire positive social change using entertainment and education. Trained as a secondary school music teacher, his is a youth worker and adult educator. In addition to “The Things I Could Never Tell Steven,” he has also written “Captain Moonlite,” “In God We Crust,” “Sempre Libera,” “The Oldest Profession,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” and “Aladdin Goes to Africa,” among others.
Bridgette Redman is a second generation journalist who has been covering the arts and reviewing theater for the past 20 years. She now writes about the arts for publications all around the country, both regional and national. She has a passion for storytelling, particularly the stories of under-represented artists.