The world premiere of Bay Area playwright Brad Erickson's The War at Home begins inauspiciously with the cast standing rather stiffly around a piano singing "May the Circle Be Unbroken" -- but it turns out these hymn-singing, piano-playing moments, which occur throughout, provide lovely interludes between scenes. The music adds a soulful overlay to a serious and involving drama that shows how societal changes can affect individuals, for better and for worse.
Erickson strikes just the right tone in exploring political and personal issues surrounding gay marriage, and the ways that the personal and the political overlap. His approach is accessible, humane, and thankfully not at all strident. Set in conservative Charleston, S.C., the action centers on Jason, a gay New York playwright who was recently legally married in Boston and has come home to stage his latest play -- about, yes, gay marriage -- at a small theatre. The idea is for it to run alongside the famed, international Spoleto Arts Festival. Jason has taken on a pen name so as not to upset his parents; his father is a popular Baptist preacher in town. But things immediately get complicated: Jason guiltily realizes he's still attracted to his high school lover, Reese, who's the theatre's artistic director; his dad's narrow-minded, homophobic church colleague, Danny, gets wind of Jason's production and organizes a protest that has wide ramifications; and Jason's father is quite understandably caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, with both his job at his rapidly growing church and his relationship with his own son at stake. With poor Mom is in a state of denial over Jason's homosexuality, everything is threatening to implode -- Jason's marriage, his parents' marriage, his father's career, everybody's entrenched belief systems.
To his credit, Erickson provides hope but no simplistic solutions. Most of his characters are believably multidimensional and ambivalent; they evolve organically as the action carries them along. It's a taut, well constructed play with a few especially nice touches, like the aforementioned music.
Under John Dixon's direction, the New Conservatory Theatre Center's production is engaging despite an uneven cast. The strongest portrayals are by Peter Matthews, whose performance as a low-key, appealing Jason is focused and empathetic; and by Alex Ross, whose turn as the confused father is perfectly calibrated. The scenes between those two are delicate and lovely, the best in the play. Unfortunately Jason Jeremy as Reese and Patrick MacKellan as Danny resort to broad caricature, although MacKellan's singing is sublime. It should be added that Bruce Walters' compact, three-part set works well on the tiny stage.
The War at Home runs Sept. 30-Nov. 5 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: (415) 861-8972. Website: www.nctcsf.org.