MANSFIELD -It's so refreshing when a show features a new, talented youth who has been nurturing dramatic skills at the high school level. When there is a cadre of young faces, one with more talent than the next, it's downright amazing.
The New England Repertory Company opened its 2011-12 season with such a squad last weekend at the MMAS Black Box Theater. This, and the emotionally charged storyline of "Tea and Sympathy," Robert Anderson's 1950s era look at homosexuality in a New England boy's boarding school, combined for a superb show.
The play first emerged in a Puritanical America that was dealing with the stinging accusations of McCarthyism, and shed a harsh light on the way people viewed homosexuality. Sixty years later, the stigma, although fainter, still remains.
It is the beautiful story of Tom Lee, a sensitive musician who doesn't quite fit in with the image of a strong young man held by his father, his house master or his peers. He prefers strumming his guitar over contact sports, wears his hair long because he doesn't have the right head for a crew cut, and would rather sit and enjoy tea and poetry with the house master's wife than hang with the other boys in the house.
"Look at the way he walks, the way he stands. A man knows a queer when he sees one," house master Bill Reynolds tells his wife Laura.
When Tom spends an innocent day at the beach, nude sunbathing with a teacher who is suspected of being homosexual, the teacher is fired and the ridicule Tom faces escalates. Although his roommate Al stands up for him when the other students mock and tease him, even he is forced to abandon Tom when his father makes him switch houses to avoid being cast as a homosexual himself.
Tom, who grapples with his sexuality and his uniqueness in a sea of strapping jocks, doesn't cow easily. He faces his father's wrath with questions about his father's love and intentions. He appeals to Laura for guidance. He postulates with Al, but then meekly takes a walking lesson so he can learn to walk in a more masculine way.
Anderson is adept at coaxing various emotions from his characters as he weaves the story. Laura is Tom's champion, even when it leads to the unraveling of her own life. Bill fights his personal demons and deflects his anger onto Tom in palpable ways. And, Tom is a gentle soul forced to wrestle with a stigma he cannot control.
This production of "Tea and Sympathy" has a strong cast, especially the younger men who play Tom and his schoolmates. Petr Favazza, a senior at Sharon High School, is riveting as Tom. He remains on stage for most of the play, doing homework or playing his guitar in his room while the action moves to another part of the stage. This omnipresence makes his persona stronger and more enveloping for the audience. They can never get Tom and his situation out of their minds.
Favazza portrays the torture Tom experiences to perfection. His outbursts - at his father, at Bill, at his house mates - are passionate and mesmerizing. He can draw the audience into Tom's pain easily, leaving the message of the play seared on their hearts.
Equally talented is Jennifer Mischley who plays Laura. She is disgusted at the comments made by her husband and Herb Lee, Tom's father, when the scandal first arises. She knows Tom best because she makes the time to speak with him and discuss music and literature. Mischley wrings her hands at the reflection the situation has on her marriage and her hollow life, and her facial expressions tell as much of the story as the dialogue.
While the focus is on these two, they are backed by gifted actors in Joe LaGreca, who plays Bill, Tyler Lawson, who plays a house mate Ralph, Richard Stiles as Herb Lee and Curtis Bellafiore, who plays Tom's roommate Al.
Bellafiore especially does a fabulous job of making Al an interesting combination of rough big man on campus and good friend. He genuinely likes Tom and tries to shield him from derision. One of the most touching moments of "Tea and Sympathy" is when he tells Tom that he needs to walk more firmly, like a man, and then demonstrates. The betrayal he feels part of is etched on his face and he makes Al endearing and sweet.
LaGreca's character is gruff and self-centered, but he aptly douses his interpretation of Bill in confusion and pain. He seems to be running away from something and he skillfully plays up this subplot.
"Tea and Sympathy" is a fabulous show on stage through Sunday, Sept. 25, at the Black Box Theater, 377 North Main St., Mansfield. For tickets call 508-339-2822 or visit www.mmas.org.