Straight people have a tendency to view gay people as breakers of tradition, or rebels against the status quo. Whether this perspective manifests itself in bigotry and discrimination or in a positive appreciation of gay culture, it effectively categorizes gay people as “other.” With their vibrant subculture, they are seen by straight people as changing or challenging tradition.
Gay people are rarely portrayed as preservers of tradition, which makes The Pattern at Pendarvis so remarkable. An understated drama playing through the New Dog Theatre Company at Streetsigns Center for Literature and Performance, the play is adapted and fictionalized from interviews with Edgar Hellum, a curator who helped restore the homes of Depression-era migrant Cornish miners in Wisconsin. Edgar (a wonderful Lawrence Merritt) recounts his memories working and living in Pendarvis, one of the restored houses, and his life with his partner, Bob (historically, Robert Neal).
In this context, “partner,” is a loaded word with more than one meaning, a nuance that interviewer Rich (Gregory Jensen) is as eager to explore as the head of Pendarvis historical society Norm (David Murray Jaffe) is to obscure it. As Edgar shares his wistful memories and amusing anecdotes about Pendarvis and Bob, Rich sits with pad and paper in hand, at the edge of his seat in the admiring posture of a man interviewing a role model, while Norm sits forward just as upright, ready to stop the interview if the subject wanders too much into the area of Edgar and Bob’s unconventional relationship. Merritt has the lion’s share of dialogue in the first half of the play while Jensen and Jaffe have to communicate mostly through body language; they do so admirably well, creating dramatic (and some light comic) tension with their posture and facial expressions.
Edgar’s monologue is accompanied by etchings and drawings of Pendarvis projected on the back of the stage in monochromatic light, creating a visual reference point for his stories while casting a shadow of memory, an excellent set and lighting design by Daniel Ettinger and Joseph Amodei. A play that goes into great detail about its description of a setting while taking place entirely within a man’s living room shouldn’t work so well, but it does.
The major accomplishment of The Pattern in Pendarvis is how Edgar’s life story comes across as extraordinary and ordinary all at once, and how each character views his work in preserving the culture of a small, working-class American town. Rich is eager to portray Edgar as a pioneer, a role model for other gay men. Norm would prefer no attention be called to Edgar’s sexuality at all, seeing it as an aberration in an otherwise admirable man. Edgar, meanwhile, is grateful for the opportunity to talk about Bob, whom he misses and loves, but doesn’t want too much attention paid to his “sex life,” seeing it as unimportant in the greater story of Pendarvis or his life in general. He rejects being categorized as an “other,” whether for positive or negative reasons.
Written with great affection and care by Dean Gray, The Pattern at Pendarvis is a play whose effect sneaks up on you slowly. At first, it seems like a pleasant enough way to spend eighty minutes, but it gradually becomes something special, and concludes with a beautifully understated ending that respects the nuance that came before.
The Pattern at Pendarvis is running through August 5, 2018 as part of SubletSeries@HERE, on 145th Sixth Avenue (entrance on Dominick Street).