First off, I must say that in my opinion this is not a great play, however the issues it puts centre stage are fascinating and make the play worth exploring.
The story of young people in trouble was a popular post-war theme picked up in movies like Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1949). However, what makes Sophie Treadwell’s 1954 (previously unproduced) play GARRY so extraordinary is that she is dealing explicitly with multiple taboos- homosexuality, prostitution, sexual violence – in a time when these themes were completely unacceptable stage material unless deeply coded and/or so hopelessly vague as to be unreadable.
So in reality Treadwell was writing a play that had zero chance of being performed in any theatre, apart possibly from club theatres – which again had their own restrictions.
American playwright and journalist Treadwell’s only hit was 1928’s much-revived MACHINAL, seen in London as recently as last year at the Almeida, the play inspired by the real-life case of convicted and executed murderer Ruth Snyder, about a woman weighed down by society’s expectations which ultimately drive her to murder.
26 years after MACHINAL Treadwell wrote GARRY, which is set in New York; Garry is a “punk” – a young, bored reform school kid who gets his “kicks” from stealing. On parole and trying to reform for his new wife, he gets fired from his job and reverts to type, picking up a businessman in a bar and choking him to death during sex in his hotel room, stealing his wallet in the process.
His young, trusting wife Wilma takes upon herself the unrealistic task of “saving” Garry from himself, from being a weak person like her father was, and in doing so torturing herself trying to “love him enough” to un-see the failings and lies he instinctively resorts to. “You gotta love me, Wil, It’ll make a man of me” he says in desperation, asking the impossible.
Everything he gravitates to is “dirty” to Wilma – sex with men, violence, stolen money. Garry recognises this, but as it connects directly to his ambivalence about his homosexuality he knows that these are a part of him. All sex becomes dirty, as in explaining why they have not yet consummated their marriage, Garry tells Wilma “I wanted to keep you clean”. There is little tenderness in their single, eventual lovemaking, mostly aggression and submission.
Garry goes on the run and leaves Wilma to do her own kind of sentence – just waiting for news, powerless. Meanwhile a reporter comes sniffing around for information and proves sympathetic (a rather unlikely quality for a NY newshound, perhaps here Treadwell projects herself a little too heavily onto the character) to the point where he seems a viable new partner for Wilma.
Garry returns briefly, to see Wilma, having run away from his new sugar daddy in Mexico, and eventually returns there, realising that Wilma has nothing to offer him, and vice-versa.
The direction (by Graham Watts) and the performances get what they can out of the material. Thomas Martin is suitably conflicted as Garry, Phebe Alys as Wilma provokes sympathy in her journey from fragile, hopeful new wife to discarded “beard”, and Claire Bowman provides a welcome shot of sass as Garry’s prostitute sister, shedding her principles faster than her clothing for the right price.
This is dark, edgy stuff but as presented it doesn’t look it – the lighting should have more of its own character, be more noir-ish, but everything here is flat and somewhat two-dimensional which again dilutes any atmosphere the actors try to create, which is a disappointment. The set is very straightforward with little sense of time or place, only the sound helping with 50s music and radio broadcasts.
Treadwell clearly has an understanding of – and compassion for – these characters and the troubled ways in which they interact, but there is very little action within the play, which makes it feel more like a series of dialogues creating character studies, clunky in its assembly and dramatically not that satisfying. To me, it felt like more of a draft than a finished play.
However, the issues raised – the complex homosexual connections with street crime and reformatory, in a time when men were not “allowed” to be gay and live normally in society, when most men simply suppressed their true selves – as to make a life outside the norm would have been too restricting- and further, required the independence of considerable wealth which was way beyond regular people.
Despite the show being called GARRY, this is Wilma’s show. The real revelation here is the impact upon the woman. Homosexual men who suppressed their true selves often married to attempt to “keep themselves in check” or simply hide away. In truth, of course, it was a non-solution that made victims of both partners.
Gay men’s anguish in this time has been dramatized occasionally; but what has been more rarely covered (and partly why this play is valuable) is the impact upon their wives, most likely not ever being allowed to fully understand that what has happened was not in some way their fault, and that actions to try to sort it out would prove limited at best, futile at worst. The damage caused to both parties by society’s strictures are indeed shocking and tragic, and Treadwell should be applauded for taking a bold and raw look at the impact on one woman. Thanks also to director/producer Graham Watts for giving us the chance to see this play after a 65 year wait.
GARRY plays at the White Bear Theatre until June 22. Information and tickets here