By Kimberly Rau
’Tis the season for incredible fall openers in Rhode Island theater, and Trinity is leading the pack with Matthew López’s poignant and witty “The Inheritance (Part 1).”
Lopez’s work is loosely based around E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howard’s End,” and uses major plot points, as well as Forster’s largely closeted homosexuality, to drive a story of modern-day gay men finding their voice and place in the world while paying homage to those who paved their way. One of these young men is struggling to begin his novel, and an apparition of Forster appears, compelling the cast to ask, who cares how it starts? Tell the story!
It turns out that how it starts is everything. Forster was a closeted gay author who died shortly after Stonewall. The men in our play, save two older gentlemen, weren’t alive for the AIDS crisis in the 80s. But both the silent voices of the early 20th century and the ghosts of those who left too soon are paramount to the story being crafted before us. It turns into a story-within-a-story, with the creative group of friends helping stage the novel the aforementioned young man is trying to write. The two sisters from “Howard’s End” become a gay male couple, Eric and Toby, whose relationship is on shaky ground. Toby, a bombastic, overly confident writer, becomes enamored with a young actor named Adam, who idolizes Eric and Toby. Meanwhile, Eric, an unassuming man without much confidence, seeks solace in the camaraderie of an older gay man, Walter, who lives in the building with his partner Henry.
Lopez’s play is impressive on its own. It has sharp dialogue, incredibly realistic characters, and some very creative storytelling devices. Under Joe Wilson Jr.’s direction, it positively sings on stage, which features a beautiful, sparse, modernist set by Michael McGarty that complements the complex storyline.
The ensemble cast, each of their roles a distinct, well-thought-out personality, works together beautifully. Much of the action surrounds Chingwe Padraig Sullivan, who primarily plays Young Man 1 (the author with writer’s block) and Adam McDowell, the optimistic and kind actor who sees Toby and Eric as mentors. Sullivan is a riveting actor, lending weight to the smallest of movements (tucking a business card into a book of poetry, reacting to a careless phrase). This is their Trinity debut, and hopefully the first of many things we get to see them in here.
Jack Dwyer plays Eric Glass, Toby’s partner whose main goal in life seems to be taking care of Toby, and the apartment he’s about to be evicted from (rent control technicalities). Eric is a sympathetic role, and Dwyer gives us that, but also takes us on a nuanced journey of character growth, until we believe what the script tells us in the end: the once-hapless Eric is able to stand on his own two feet and welcome whatever lies ahead. Taavon Gamble as the over-the-top Toby Darling (“the role is Everest!” he says of his own work, which is less enthusiastically received by critics) has fun being the reckless creative, but also finds moments to show us how lost Toby really is.
Stephen Thorne plays both Morgan (the apparition of E.M. Forster) and Walter, who is essentially Eric, but a generation older. Walter takes Eric under his wing and helps him understand the importance not only of the history of being gay in America, but also standing up for himself. Thorne, a longtime Trinity Rep resident, is as impressive as ever.
This is a long show, clocking in at over 3 hours, but not a moment is wasted. Part 1 could stand on its own, wrapping up in a way that feels satisfying but still leaves you asking plenty of questions. What happens to Eric? What about Walter’s house (a throwback to the original novel), a point of contention between his partner’s sons and Eric? How does Toby fare after finding himself in the most vulnerable place of his life?
Stay tuned for Part 2.
“The Inheritance (Part 1)” runs through Nov. 1 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at trinityrep.com or by calling 401.351.4242. Masks are required at all times while inside the building.