Review: The mystery of ‘Time Is on Our Side’

In Simpatico Theatre Project's production of the new play 'Time Is on Our Side

In Simpatico Theatre Project's production of the new play 'Time Is on Our Side

Who gets to tell your story? That’s a theme of the Tony-winning sensation “Hamilton,” which explores the history of founding father Alexander Hamilton in surprising ways. It’s also the theme of “Time Is on Our Side,” a rewarding new play being premiered by Simpatico Theatre Project in its new Center City home at the Drake.

For “Hamilton,” the question refers to the control of the narrative by both the characters and the actors. For R. Eric Thomas’ play, the question drives the plot. Specifically: Can you steal someone’s family history for your own use?

That plot involves two gay pals, Annie (a spot-on Kristen Norine) and Curtis (a genuine portrayal by Carl Clemons-Hopkins). They’re all about history and “the story” — they host a podcast called “The Schuylkill River Project” and view the history they research through a gay lens. Currently, they’re delving into the history of the Johnson House in Germantown, a major stop on the Underground Railroad. How was it, they wonder on the podcast, to reach that destination and suddenly face the prospect of being free? Thrilling? Scary? Overwhelming?

After one podcast session, they discover a diary hidden in a wooden box Annie inherited from her grandmother. It’s a well written (a little too well written) account of a part of her grandmother’s life, and it’s oblique — there’s plenty of space between the lines for a reader’s ruminations. And here, too, is a story about someone facing the prospect of being free, a century later than the runaway slaves who made it to the Johnson House.

The diary makes a good tale, especially when some basic research leads to the answers between its lines. But who gets to tell this tale? It could be Annie – it’s her family history, and she sees it as a private matter. It could be Curtis – for him, it’s a great mystery, and a possible piece that he could put together for NPR.

The intellectual wrestling match that plays out in “Time Is on Our Side” is set in the present, but much of the play is about gay life Philadelphia a half-century ago, when Annie’s grandparents were in their primes. There’s plenty of Philly talk and imagery in “Time Is on Our Side,” and a sizable helping of local gay history. Thomas did his research, and his genuine dialogue is often funny and sometimes thought-provoking, even though the plot ultimately seems needlessly contrived.

Forced or not, “Time Is on Our Side,” — a reference to LGBT folks nowadays — delivers thoughtful, clear storytelling drama that new plays frequently lack. Jarrod Markman directs it with a fluent progression on Christopher Haig’s fine kitchen set, with grey furniture on the stage and hanging from grey walls — signs that the truth is sometimes in suspension and almost never black or white.

A number of supporting roles are played by two excellent actors, Ryan Walter and Brandi Burgess, whose rendition of an elderly gay man is especially impressive. And speaking of our city, dramaturg Sarah Totora offers a national timeline of LGBT history in the program notes, but nothing about LGBT history in Philadelphia, the germane point here. You get some of that in the dialogue, but “Time Is on Our Side” — like any effective play that captures a time in history — leaves you wanting more.

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“Time Is on Our Side,” produced by Simpatico Theatre Project, runs through June 26 at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, on Spruce Street between 15th and 16th Streets. The entrance is on the side of the Drake, along Hicks Street. www.simpaticotheatre.org.

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