You know it’s the mark of a fine writer when he manages to make honest emotional connections between a kilted, gay, table dancer and an aging army officer who, during the Second World War, fell in love with the dancer’s grandfather. Such is the topsy-turvy world Jonathan Wilson’s “Kilt” inhabits. The first full-length play from the author of a hit one-act piece about growing up gay in a Toronto suburb, it holds up the early promise of Wilson as a witty, provocative and engaging new stage voice.
“Kilt” is also the product of a joint play development process between Tarragon and the Shaw Festival; the latter has revived its “Toronto Project” as part of a new mandate to expand beyond plays written during George Bernard Shaw’s lifetime and is pursuing an association with new work both at Tarragon and Buddies in Bad Times Theater.
The story of “Kilt” is unusual and full of hilarious and touching twists and turns. It blends a search for family roots with a deliciously non-apologetic take on being gay.
Tom has been hiding his stripping job from his mom, an ex-Highland dancer whose competitive dreams ended when she landed on a sword and accidentally sliced off part of her big toe.
But mom finds out when she tracks him down to tell him that his grandfather is dead and they are traveling to Scotland for the funeral. Having left for Canada when he was 3 months old, Tom discovers mom has not only been hiding skeletons, she’s been inventing a whole family history.
Also there for the funeral is the elderly officer, David. The way in which David, Tom, mom and her sister, Mary, finally unite over granddad’s ashes, is a feat of imagination and offers the kind of implausibility that only theater can make plausible.
Another layer takes the audience back to the war and the relationship between David and grandpa (with the actor who plays Tom doubling as his own grandfather) , and, in one of the play’s most eloquent moments, the two worlds overlap. On a gorgeous, golden-hued, multi-leveled set designed and lit by Stephan Droege, the action shifts from Tobruk to Canada and on to Scotland, traveling through time and geography smoothly and believably.
This is not to say that the work is flawless. Ultimately, the tricky balance between the play’s male gay aesthetic (which includes wonderfully bitchy humor as well as outsized, outlandish female characters) and its deeper, universal soul-searching is uneven both in the production and in the writing.
The two women are overblown to the point of caricature and come across as a mix of drag queen and vamp. It’s an easy trap to fall into, given that Wilson does stretch his comedy so broadly that it lapses intostereotypes. But there is more sensitivity and layering in the writing than the performances suggest, and the fault lies mostly with Andy McKim’s direction; he has used a sledgehammer to drive home the comedy in a play that cries out for a softer touch.
On the other hand, Paul Braunstein and Gerard Parkes, as Tom and the older David, respectively, have found the heartbeat of the story, and their performances are textured and compelling, although the final cast member, Brendan Wall, is a bit tentative.
As Wilson matures in his craft, the generosity of spirit he now extends to his male characters will likely begin to inhabit the other half of the human race. And that will make it easier for his actors and director to follow suit.