Lee Blessing’s wistful and sweet-spirited “Thief River” would be more generally affecting if it were more convincing in its particulars. The play traces the complicated relationship between two men — one openly gay, one firmly closeted — in rural Minnesota across a span of five decades. Burdened by serious plot contrivances, it nevertheless has some genuinely moving scenes, particularly in the closing moments, as the now elderly men look back on the decisions that turned their lives in opposite directions.
The play takes place in an uninhabited farmhouse in June of the years 1948, 1973 and 2001. It’s not, at first, easy to tell which decade we’re in, as the lights go up on a young man whose tuxedo has been splashed with blood. The sensitive Gil (Jeffrey Carlson) has just come from the prom, where he’d been beaten up by a local ruffian whose beauty he’s worshipped — publicly.
A contemporary scene? Nope; it’s 1948 — although it seems implausible, to say the least, that a rural high-schooler of the time would be so open about his sexuality as to flagrantly ogle the local jocks. Coming to Gil’s rescue is his best pal Ray (Erik Sorensen), and by the end of the scene they are locked in a passionate embrace that Ray at first resists: “We promised we’d never do that again!”
The play soon moves forward a couple of decades, and we learn that the night in the abandoned house was a turning point in both boys’ lives. Gil, who had shot his love object/assailant, has permanently abandoned his hometown of Thief River to live the life of an openly gay man in a nearby city. Ray is married, with a grown son, and tending the farm he inherited.
Now Gil has come back to seduce Ray away from his life of duplicity, in the company of his much younger lover Kit. The sequences that take place at this middle juncture in the men’s lives are perhaps the play’s most problematic. Kit, for one, is a flamboyant and shrilly outspoken character who is unconvincing as a portrait of a gay man in the Midwest in 1973. (Sorensen’s performance in this role strikes the only off-key note of the evening.)
And the integrity of Blessing’s more sensitive depictions of both Gil and Ray is compromised by the plot’s dependence on contrived and melodramatic events to knit them together. That night in 1948, it turns out, ended with an ultimately fatal encounter between the boys and a homophobic hobo (!). The reunion in 1973 also concludes with a threat of blackmail followed by a fateful revelation.
Above all, Gil’s undying love for Ray seems a peculiarly sentimental notion, something borrowed wholesale from a Bette Davis sob-sister picture of the ’30s — one of those costume-clotted epics about an unrequited love that endures across decades and ends unhappily. At times the play feels similarly overstuffed with incident.
Thankfully, Blessing’s writing for his two central characters is usually more understated than the dramatic devices he employs and more assured than the writing for some clumsily drawn ancillary characters. It helps that director Mark Lamos has elicited uniformly fine work from his six-member cast.
As the young Gil and Ray, respectively, Sorensen and particularly Carlson have a shining freshness and a touching, natural rapport. Carlson also gives a neatly contrasting perf as Ray’s cool teenage grandson Jody. One of the play’s loveliest, funniest moments is an affectless admission of affection between Jody and his grandfather, who is played with a gruff simplicity by Frank Converse.
Converse is convincingly taking his cue from the middle-aged Ray of Greg Edelman. Edelman’s Ray has a Midwestern matter-of-factness that makes clear how utterly impossible it is for him to imagine living the life that Gil offers to him. Neither entirely contented nor tormented by anguish, he’s simply made his bargains with life and is determined to live up to them without wriggling out.
When Gil and Ray are reunited as old men, the play finally achieves the feeling of emotional depth that has previously eluded it — ironically, when both men’s feelings for each other have been becalmed. Beautifully played by Remak Ramsay and Converse, this final scene of reckoning between the two men is written with unerring delicacy.
Regret, resentment and the embers of a deep affection hover in the air. With much less to lose, Ray is finally ready to pledge his affection; with less to gain, Gil no longer needs it. It’s a quietly devastating picture of lost possibilities and love curtailed by circumstances, and it concludes an imperfect play on a perfectly resonant note of rue.