What it's about.
A play by Harvey Fierstein set in 1970's New York, follows a gay man's complex relationships with his lover, ex-lover, estranged mother, and adopted son.
A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre…
I rushed out of my house to catch the Metro North, which unlike the NYC subway, arrives in 30-60 minute intervals of each other. I HAVE NEVER RAN SO FAST IN MY LIFE. I thought I was gonna be late, bc I could’ve sworn I was seeing the matinee show…well, guess not. But hey, the early bird catches the worm, right? So after about six hours of roaming around Times Square, I finally make it to the Second Stage Theatre.
I go up the stairs, and am escorted to my seat. I was seated in the front row, which was a little nerve racking for me, but I was nonetheless excited. As everyone enters the theater, I am looking at a set piece. There is a huge neon sign hanging which reads "Torch Song," in red lettering. The sign itself was slightly deteriorated.
I notice as I’m sitting waiting for the play to start, a lot of diva-esque music from the 70’s and 80’s is playing. They were songs that are worthy to be in a lip sync battle in RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Finally the show started, and on comes the main character, Arnold as her drag persona, Virginia Ham in all her glory. She says this one line which I thought was hilarious:
“A drag queen is like an oil painting: you gotta step back from it to get the full effect.”
Perhaps part of what made it so amusing, to me, was Arnold’s accent. He has a very thick classic New York accent. Arnold is full of these iconic one liners through the show.
Yet, behind all of the comedy, behind the makeup, is a man who seeks love and acceptance. That’s not, of course, to say that his sexuality isn’t a huge factor in this search: IT IS. I mean it's the 1970’s. It is a time of revolution and Arnold is a revolutionary for his time. Looking back from a 2017 perspective, the things he seeks are no longer seen as controversial, at least not to the same degree. Torch Song touches upon gender identity, gay bashing, and coming out.
Arnold is always unapologetically himself. For others however, accepting this anthem is difficult. Arnold’s mother, who goes simply by Ma, comes to visit him from Miami. Their relationship is distant. Both literally and figuratively. Ma loves her son dearly. But she doesn’t want to hear any of this “gay talk.” She knows her son is gay, but she doesn’t want Arnold to rub it in her face. For instance, Arnold sits on the couch with his foster child, David, reading a book, and he tells him that Oscar Wilde was gay, and that was the reason for him being sent to prison for indecency. Arnold continues on his tangent about Wilde, and Ma is visibly tense from overhearing the conversation.
This is probably the part in the play that really hit home for me.
Ma’s character isn’t one sided. I couldn’t hate her, despite her homophobia. I couldn’t bring myself to hate her, because I saw a lot my own mother in her character. Mercedes Ruehl plays Ma, but in the original production, back in 1982, the role was originated by Estelle Getty AKA Sophia Petrillo (Golden Girls, anyone?).
As I was seeing the scene between Ma and Arnold unfold, in the back of my mind I was reminded of this scene from Golden Girls. In this scene, Blanche is ignorant, but in such an innocent way. I got the same vibe watching Ma in Torch Song.
I suppose, in this case, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Even Ma admits it.
The play ended in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Ma walks out on Arnold as he has his back turned to her, as he’s tuning the radio. The final image is Arnold sitting on the couch hugging a book, a photograph of his dead lover Alan (his lover who got beaten to death by a group of teenagers for being gay) and a box of cookies baked by Ma. Lights out. So, of course, when I left the theatre, I was thinking about what would happen next. What happens to Arnold? What about his mom? Not much closure was given.
I guess sometimes you just have to learn to embrace the uncertainty and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Just like Arnold. 🌈
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