Carrying the Torch – Style Weekly

For Lucian Restivo, staging Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” has been a years-long process.

Just before COVID-19 reared its spiked protein barbs in 2020, Restivo was supposed to direct the show at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center. The pandemic scrubbed that production, but now Richmond Triangle Players is staging the play, this time with Restivo starring and Gary Hopper in the director’s chair.

The switch came about as RTP was trying to cast the show’s protagonist, a gay, Jewish drag queen named Arnold Beckoff.

“When we went through auditions, we really just could not find an actor who was both authentically Jewish and queer, and I just happen to be both of those things,” says Restivo, who is also RTP’s artistic director.

Taking place in the late 1970s and early ’80s, “Torch Song” follows Arnold during three different time periods as he contends with life, love and death. The play is adapted from Fierstein’s four-hour “Torch Song Trilogy,” which was first staged in 1978 under the name “International Stud.”

The 1982 Broadway production garnered Fierstein two Tony wins, one for Best Play and one for Best Actor in a Play. The show is credited with introducing elements of gay culture to the mainstream. In a 2017 review of “Torch Song,” the New York Times wrote “It could be argued that without Mr. Fierstein there would be no ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,’ ‘Will & Grace’ or ‘Modern Family’ on television.”

Restivo approves of Fierstein’s trimming of his own play.

“The way that Harvey distilled the work for a modern generation is really great,” Restivo says. “It moves through the piece much quicker.”

In the show, Arnold deals with the aftermath of an intense affair with Ed Reiss, a man uncomfortable with his own bisexuality. Ed eventually leaves and settles down with a woman named Laurel, but the two remain in each other’s orbit thereafter.

“To me, it is a piece about every individual’s needs for validation,” says Hopper. “We want validation of who we are and why we’re that way. That, essentially, for me, is what the piece is about.”

The show’s production elements, which include a large number of music cues, sound effects and projections, have presented a challenge.

“It’s an immense undertaking for Richmond Triangle, because it’s not really a realistic play,” Hopper says. “This is Arnold’s dream as he reevaluates his life.”

Balancing the show’s dramatics while playing a witty drag queen is unlike any role Restivo has tackled before.

“It is one of the biggest challenges that I’ve ever had in my artistic career, and it’s been so fulfilling,” Restivo says. “The cast has been the absolutely most supportive family that I could have asked for, and we’ve been having the time of our lives in rehearsal.”

Debra Clinton plays Ma, Arnold’s strict Jewish mother who doesn’t approve of Arnold’s sexuality.

“She is, in many ways, the quintessential Jewish mother,” Clinton says. “She loves hard. She is stuck in her own morality, her ideas of what is right. She really struggles with accepting Arnold for who he is.”

Clinton, who was a producer for the JCC show, says her character can be painful to watch.

“It’s been an incredible personal journey for me emotionally, which I didn’t expect,” Clinton says. “Everyone knows someone in this show. Everyone is someone in this show, because everyone, at one point in their life, has been a child, and everyone needs love, respect and acceptance.”

Summing up “Torch Song,” Restivo says the show’s tale of a persecuted gay and Jewish man is a vital one for our times.

“It’s a dark comedy that really hits home for a queer person,” he says. “It goes through trauma. It goes through the happiest times of Arnold’s life and the worst times of Arnold’s life. But, at the end of the day, you are going to laugh your ass off and cry many, many tears.”

“Torch Song” runs through March 9 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. For more information, visit rtriangle.org or call (804) 346-8113.

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