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The Pride at About Face Theatre | Theater review

Alexi Kaye Campbell's time-shifting gay drama gets an accomplished and overdue Chicago premiere.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

John Francisco and Patrick Andrews in The Pride at About Face Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Patrick Andrews and John Francisco in The Pride at About Face Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

John Francisco, Patrick Andrews and Jessie Fisher in The Pride at About Face Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The Pride at About Face Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The Pride at About Face Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The Pride at About Face Theatre

"It's like you were the only person to ever truly know my name," Oliver (Patrick Andrews) says to Philip (John Francisco) at a crucial moment in Alexi Kaye Campbell's 2008 work. Names—the calling of, the power of—are a recurring theme in this moving, inventive piece; the play's opening lines comprise Oliver and Philip's introduction: "Philip." "Oliver." "Yes." "At last."

Names also inform Campbell's central conceit: There are actually two Philips and two Olivers in the drama, which hops back and forth between the Londons of 1958 and 2008. Both pairs are gay (or homosexual, as the ’50s characters icily put it) and involved, but in differing ways that reflect their eras. The Philip of 1958 is married to a woman and fervently repressing his urges when he meets Oliver, his wife's employer, while in 2008 an easily out Philip has just broken up with Oliver, whose problem is he can't seem to repress his urges for anonymous sex.

The time-shifting could sound gimmicky, but in fact the mirroring of eras proves a rich device for exploring both the massive societal shakeups undergone in a relatively brief span as well as the human-scale foibles—love, sex, betrayal, the search for understanding of self—that we don't shed with evolution.

Bonnie Metzgar's sensitive production—her final act as About Face Theatre's outgoing artistic director—fluidly navigates the tricky shifts between scenes and periods. She gets able assists from designers William Boles, whose initial drawing-room set gradually disappears in bits and pieces, and Stephen Ptacek, whose soundscape underlines the metaphysical and metaphorical transitions.

Metzgar's cast is equally remarkable. Andrews and Francisco find impressive physical and emotional gradations in their parallel lives, as does Jessie Fisher as the older Philip's wife, who puts on a blithe front, and the younger Oliver's best friend, who's trying to end her enabling ways. (Both women, for the record, are named Sylvia.) Benjamin Sprunger is terrific in three smaller roles, particularly in a turn as a modern lad-mag editor who illustrates how even well-meaning straight people can still send mixed messages about gay equality.

If there's a shortcoming in Campbell's impressively crafted script, it's an imbalance between the eras. The 1950s scenes give equal shrift to the burdens born by Philip, Oliver and Sylvia, but the present-day story clearly centers on Oliver; we hardly learn anything about the under-represented 2008 iteration of Philip, and the modern critiques of urban Pride festivities ("Is it a demonstration, a celebration or a fashion show?" the 21st-century Oliver muses) till long-broken ground. Still, it's natural to be less decided about the present than the past; The Pride's takeaway is how extraordinarily far we've come, and how far we've yet to go.