Bullying remains the number one problem among high school students in today’s world. In Jordan Tannahill’s Late Company he explores a Canadian family whose gay son committed suicide due to the influences of bullying at the Toronto school he attended. Currently onstage at Theatre 40, in its American premiere, Late Company boasts superb direction from Bruce Gray and a dynamic cast of 5 actors.
From the onset this powerful play reminded me of Yasmina Reza’s award-winning God of Carnage. What starts out to be a simple dinner between two families turns into a primitive battleground with both sides equally sharing the guilt. In Late Company a husband and wife Deb and Michael Shaun-Hastings (Ann Hearn and Grinnell Morris) invite Curtis Dermot (Baker Chase Powell) and his parents Tam (Jennifer Lyn Davis) and Bill (Todd Johnson) to dinner. The purpose of the meeting is for both sides to come to terms with the death/suicide of Joel Shaun-Hastings, a classmate of Curtis, who was bullied by him and other vehement teens. Each side has written a letter of apology. Deb has penned hers and Curtis, his. It’s all protocol at first, with the two moms acting sociable toward one another and the two fathers getting to know one another in an amicable manner. Curtis remains aloof, not really wanting to be there. Without realizing that Curtis is allergic to fish, Deb has prepared shrimp and scallops – or was she really aware, as Tam says she told her? Deb is a sculptor and Michael a politician. They have professional careers which have interfered with their time and keeping their son’s problems in clear focus. It is apparent that Michael did not want the meeting or to become involved with the Dermots.
As the evening goes on, Deb’s anger rises and when she reads her letter, it is not an acceptance but an all-out attack on Curtis and on his parents for their negativity in allowing him to bully. Bill, the hard-edged father, a hardcore know.it.all, accuses Michael of acknowledging his son’s flamboyantly gay behavior as acceptable and allowing him to flaunt it in front of the other teens. Deb also accuses Tam of not honestly caring about Joel or the issue at stake and of only agreeing to the meeting to release her son from any guilt in Joel’s suicide.
Needless to say, the evening ends with the two families parting enemies. Only Curtis returns to share some kind of knowledge about Joel or himself. Tannahill cautiously leaves the purpose of his return at the end to the discretion of the audience who must figure it all out for themselves.
What I like most about Tannahill’s script is that he does not put all the guilt on the side of the bullies. Yes, Curtis bullied Joel, but he may very well have done so due to parental pressure, particularly that of his father Bill, who sees himself as the perfect father keeping his son away from homosexuals, those vile individuals who are the scum of the earth. Tam is along for the ride, so to speak, supporting her husband and trying to make sure that her son does not turn out gay as well, the worst nightmare of any mother. When it does happen the mother frets, “What did I do wrong?” Joel’s parents are equally to blame for their shortsightedness. Why did Deb let Joel go off to school, condoning his use of eyeshadow? Why didn’t she know that he made videos in drag? Michael didn’t tell her. His lack of communication with her about their son clinches his guilt. He would rather be at the center of public attention, instead of helping his son figure out his identity, his lifestyle. So, no one is blameless. They all play a part in Joel’s decision to end it all.
I also liked a scene toward the end where Deb and Michael watch Joel’s video online for the first time. Deb laughs at her son’s honesty and genuine creativity, and you can see their overall acceptance of his issues. If only they had taken the time earlier to find out, to console and to support their only son!
Under Bruce Gray’s even and and caring direction, the entire ensemble deserve the highest praise. Each has his turn in the spotlight. Hearn is particularly wonderful as Deb who is trying to find the truth, in wading through layers of misunderstanding. She didn’t know. When she speaks, it is sincere, emanating from the bottom of her heart. Powell is also to be commended for conveying the bewilderment of a teen who is trying to please everyone and to make sense out of it. Jeff G. Rack has outdone himself with a beautiful set design of the dining room with an overhanging mirror on the wall. Depending on where you sit in the audience, if you look in the mirror you can see one or more of the characters and their reactions to what is being said, as their backs are turned away from you at the dining room table.
Don’t miss Late Company! It brings humanity to the core, telling each and every one of us to be aware, be kind and be understanding and compassionate toward the differences of others, especially those who may be suffering at our expense.
5 out of 5 stars