Gene Therapy

Although its Broadway production closed after 29 performances, Twilight of the Golds refuses to die

Twilight of the Golds is aptly named, for this play exists in a state of perpetual twilight: It refuses to die. When it premiered on Broadway in 1993, the production closed after 29 performances. Sheer logic alone would have suggested that the play was a corpse. Not so. Four years later, it was resurrected as a cable movie for Showtime. Jennifer Beals, Faye Dunaway, Brendan Fraser and Garry Marshall portrayed the close-knit Gold family -- not a bad cast for a flop. Then the play's life was extended again when, in an almost unprecedented move, that TV-movie adaptation transferred from Showtime into movie theaters. After that run, Twilight of the Golds came to rest in video stores, where it continues to find an audience.

Although one character describes the play as "a simple story about one family making a private decision," Twilight is a bit more ambitious than that. The plot is a riff on the moral and ethical dilemmas, the rights and wrongs, of genetic testing and abortion. Set in 1992, the play asks us to believe that new experimental testing can allow a pregnant woman to detect "genetic deficiencies" in her unborn child. If that child is in harm's way, the mother can act on her newly received knowledge.

In this New Jewish Theatre production, Act 1 begins in a celebratory mood. Suzanne Gold-Stein (Linda Meade) and her husband, Rob (Joel Lewis), a genetic scientist, are celebrating their third wedding anniversary. After Suzanne announces that she is pregnant, Rob encourages her to take this new test. Several weeks later, he returns home with the results: Suzanne is carrying a son, and, in all likelihood their son will grow up to be gay, the same as her brother David (Will Ledbetter).

"If only it were deformed," Suzanne cries out in one of the play's truly horrific moments. If the child were deformed, her course of action would be so much clearer -- and perhaps even justifiable. But when the potential genetic "defect" is merely challenging rather than life-threatening, the waters grow murky.

Jonathan Tolins' drama has been accused of being a polemic (have its critics never seen a George Bernard Shaw play?), but in fact the debate over the future of Rob and Suzanne's unborn child doesn't begin in earnest until Act 2. Although you might expect a Broadway drama to favor allowing a gay child to live, in this production the argument is not weighted that way. As the scientist/husband, Joel Lewis is more persuasive than his life-affirming opponents. I doubt that this is what the playwright intended. But when a fine actor finds the truth beneath his role, anything can happen.

Here was another surprise: Despite the emphasis on Suzanne's dilemma, the play's most compelling scene takes place early in Act 2, when David confronts his parents (Carrie Houk and Tom Simmons) with this question: Had you known I was going to grow up to be homosexual, would you have opted for abortion? During this pained exchange, the audience sat spellbound. Not only were they waiting for the onstage answer, one could sense they also were struggling to answer the question for themselves. At long last, the play had struck home.

It was at this moment that I realized why Twilight of the Golds refuses to die: because you don't witness this confrontation in any other play. By contrast, Suzanne's quandary is a scientific "what-if" that, although interesting, is from the outset a hypothetical that demands of the viewer that famous "willing suspension of disbelief." But the agonizing immediacy of a mother, a father and a son trying to articulate confused, silent judgments that have been bottled up for far too long -- this is, here, now and always, the theatrical equivalent of plunging a knife into the heart of someone you most love. As viewers, we can't believe it's happening, yet we cannot turn away.

 
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