Father, son clear the air in emotionally charged ‘Queen of the Night’
The brief time we spend with the characters is enjoyable, thanks to travis tate’s often raucous banter and the well-matched actors André Teamer and Terry Guest, who make a persuasive and sympathetic pair.
Queen of the Night is a common name for a flowering vine cactus native to the southern United States and Mexico. The succulent relies on other plants and trees for support, and while it produces large and gorgeous blooms, they occur as infrequently as once a year, and last just a single night before wilting by morning.
While this ephemeral blossom isn’t directly referenced in Texan playwright and poet travis tate’s intimate dramedy of the same name now on stage at Victory Gardens, you can see the metaphor take root.
When: Through Mar. 13
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Run time: 1 hour 25 minutes, with no intermission
NOTE: Check theater website for COVID-19 policies.
“Queen of the Night” follows Ty (Terry Guest) and his father, Stephen (André Teamer), into the desert night as the pair revisit an old favorite camping spot in a Texas state park. Ty is a queer, Black man who’s working service industry jobs while pursuing an artistic career. He opens the play addressing the audience with a monologue proclaiming that he loves the outdoors. While that may be true, it’s clear that he doesn’t love many of nature’s trappings, such as bugs, dead bugs, or the threat of bears (“and not the good kind!”).
Once Stephen enters the stage, we can sense an unease between father and son, and it’s revealed that they haven’t spoken much recently. Soon we learn that the occasion for this visit to the campground where Stephen once brought Ty and his brother, Marshall, as kids, is to clear the air ahead of the impending wedding of Ty’s mother — Stephen’s ex-wife.
It’s unclear how much time has passed since the divorce, but Stephen admittedly still laments the end of his marriage. He still carries a torch for Ty’s mother, though their split was amicable enough that he’s invited to her wedding.
Ty, meanwhile, is carrying a fair amount of childhood baggage stemming from his belief that he was a disappointment, or at least a mystery, to his dad. Stephen, we’re led to believe, had traditional views of masculinity that Ty struggled to live up to in his youth. It’s implied, too, that Stephen had anger issues that led both of his children to fear his temper.
Now, though, Stephen is working on himself. Ty’s early attempts to provoke or shock his father largely fail to get a rise out of him; when Ty taunts his dad with the suggestion that he should get a therapist, Stephen affably replies, “I have one.”
Ty, somewhat flummoxed by his dad’s new demeanor, eventually admits that he showed up to the campsite spoiling for a fight, “and then I’m surprised by this nice, gentle you!”
That gentleness is both a pleasure and a bit of a problem for tate’s script. The playwright has crafted a pair of warm and charming characters who are each trying to better comprehend the other — which isn’t the most inherently dramatic scenario.
Even as they hash out past injuries while passing a bottle of whiskey around the campfire or carrying fishing rods down to the pond, Stephen and Ty are on the same side in the present. Stephen may not get all of his son’s gay in-jokes (or does he?), and Ty may not trust his dad’s halting inquiries about his love life at first. But they’re never really at odds in the here and now, and while the play’s rebuke of toxic masculinity is admirable, the overall lack of conflict can make it feel a bit meandering even at a scant 85 minutes.
Still, that brief time we spend with the characters is enjoyable, thanks to tate’s often raucous banter and the well-matched Teamer and Guest, who make a persuasive and sympathetic pair. Ty is the flashier role, and Guest makes a comedic meal of it, while Teamer’s mostly unflappable Stephen keeps things grounded.
Staged in Victory Gardens’ smaller upstairs theater, “Queen of the Night” marks the company’s return to live performance after nearly two years off, as well as the directorial debut of the company’s new artistic director, Ken-Matt Martin, who was appointed during the pandemic pause. With a vegetal scenic design by Sydney Lynne that snakes its way into the audience and an eerie, enveloping soundscape designed by G Clausen, Martin creates a welcoming environment for us to witness this overdue flowering of familial understanding.