In a way, there’s really nothing remarkable or unusual about the life story Blake Walton shares in his new one-man play “Leading Men.” It’s the way he tells it that makes it funny and moving.
The play, destined for the United Solo Festival in New York in October, is getting a tryout this weekend among the comfortable sofas and beds in the Home Resource store in Sarasota.
Using some open space and a stool as a playing area, Walton begins with a rant: “I AM A MAN,” he shouts. “Do not ever not call me a real man again.”
From there, he launches into story about figuring out what being a man really means, lessons he learns just by living his life.
He was devastated at a young age while playing dress-up with older siblings, and having his alcoholic father yell at him, “Get out of here, you little faggot,” when he saw his 4-year-old son in a skirt. That same word “faggot,” shouted when he stood among a group of men outside a West Hollywood club years later, resonates strongly with him, triggering more discussion about stereotypes, self-preservation, self-questioning and changing attitudes.
Walton jumps around in time on occasion, not quite finishing or providing all the details to one aspect of the story, but managing to link most of it together by the end.
I was most involved whenever he talked about his father, especially the way Walton reconnected with him years after his mother took him and his siblings away, and the lessons he subconsciously learned about what it is to be a father when he eventually had his own son.
The closest he comes to explaining why a gay man would get married and have a son is a brief mention of trying to conform to society’s image of a man.
Throughout the piece there are elements that will strike a common chord with audience members, and those notes will change depending on the person. There are the stories about a minister who didn’t like the fact that his mother was a divorcee in the 1960s and was something of a free thinker. Others will respond to the way he talks about stereotypes learned from watching old Shirley Temple movies or his fascination with the young Hayley Mills.
Many of his own concerns are self-imposed, not quite self-loathing, but sometimes awkward efforts to fit in. After his divorce, he worried how his young son would react to visiting him while he lived with a much-younger lover. The boy was nonplussed, which makes the character all the more endearing as we hear how he matures. Gay people are not alien creatures to a younger generation, vastly different than Walton’s own father.
Walton is at his most descriptive and moving talking about his final visits with his father, when the son became something of a parent. The details may be specific to Walton’s life, but they are recognizable to anyone who has had to help a parent later in life.
There are points when the story gets a bit bogged down in seemingly frivolous details and repetition. And the telling will become even stronger the more Walton performs it and makes it sound more conversational and less scripted. But even now, his story has a positive impact on the audience.
Written and performed by Blake Walton. Directed by Ann Morrison. Reviewed Sept. 26 at Home Resource, 741 Central Ave., Sarasota. Through Monday. Suggested donation $15. For reservations, email firstname.lastname@example.org