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Nonsense and Beauty
by Scott C. Sickles
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 17, 2019

Jeffrey Hayenga, Robbie Simpson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s closing production for its 2018-2019 Studio season is a world premiere, which had a reading last year at the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival. Nonsense and Beauty is a poignant story that’s inspired by real events and people, most notably the 20th Century English author E.M. Forster (A Room With a View, Howards End, etc.). With simple, effective staging and an especially strong cast, this is a compelling, promising new play.

In first hearing about this play and what it’s about, I did a little bit of research of my own because while I had known that Forster was gay, I didn’t know about his long relationship with English police officer Bob Buckingham, which is the basis of this play. Here, playwright Scott C. Sickles tells the story of their relationship and their relationships to other important figures in their lives. In fact, the effect of the play makes it more of the story of a small group than of the one couple in particular, although that relationship is at the center. The story is also the story of a different time in history, in which gay relationships not only carried a social stigma, but were actually illegal in the United Kingdom. So, when Forster (Jeffrey Hayenga) is first introduced to young Bob (Robbie Simpson) by his friend, J.R. “Joe” Ackerley (John Feltch), there’s an air of secrecy about how they conduct their relationship, and the social and legal pressures on Bob as a police officer are also made apparent. Still, the relationship grows with a sense of sweet simplicity despite the societal pressures, until Bob meets May (Lori Vega), a vivacious young nurse with whom he begins a flirtation that eventually leads to marriage. Needless to say, this complicates the situation with Forster, called Morgan by his friends and Edward by his imperious mother, Lily (Donna Weinsting). For Morgan, Bob is the great love for which his has waited, but for Bob, the situation becomes especially complicated since he seems to genuinely love both Morgan and May, and almost despite himself, Morgan begins to admire May as well. Although Lily’s presence is an obvious influence on Morgan, the real drama and focus in this play is on the relationship dynamics between Morgan, Bob, May, and Joe. The story plays out over several decades, with an air of poignancy and sadness about it, although there are elements of hope as well.

It’s a well-constructed play, for the most part, although the first act seems slow at times and some characters are more developed than others, it’s ultimately a fascinating play, exploring the complexities of love and friendship in an extremely restrictive time and place. The direction is simple and effective, and the casting is especially strong, particularly of Hayenga, who shines as the sensitive, loyal and initially lonely Forster, and Feltch as the devoted, occasionally snarky Joe. Vega is also excellent as May, and Simpson gives a fine performance as Bob as well, displaying strong chemistry with both Hayenga and Vega. Weinsting makes a memorable impression in the small but significant role of Forster’s mother Lily, as well, although for the play itself, her character seems the most extraneous. It’s a strong, especially cohesive ensemble, making the most of Sickles’ thoughtful, literate script.

Technically, the show is simply staged in the round. The set, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, is sparse, consisting of a simple square performance area and some furniture as needed. Bembridge also designed the lighting, which is especially evocative and helps set the tone of the play well. There’s also excellent sound design by Rusty Wandall, and well-suited period costumes by Felia K. Davenport. Overall, the technical aspects support the mood and style of the piece and reflect its period setting well.

Nonsense and Beauty is a compelling new play, with a sense of time, place, and character that’s well-defined, although it could use a little bit more defining here and there. Ultimately, it’s an effective, evocative and highly personal focus on the life and relationships of an important literary figure who was a real person, not just a name to read about in English class. It’s an excellent production to close out the season at the Rep Studio, and it’s a highly promising new play.

Robbie Simpson, Jeffrey Hayenga, Lori Vega, John Feltch
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Nonsense and Beauty in its Studio Theatre until March 24, 2019

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