Margaret, a widow and well-meaning mother, is dressed in pearls while making her special buttermilk biscuits for her daughter Laura, who’s back home listless with severe memory loss after her mother sent her away to be tortured.
That of course is not how Margaret sees it in “Sonata 1962,” one of the last of the shows in the 15th annual New York Musical Festival. Written by Patricia Loughrey and Thomas Hodges, the musical takes us back to an era when suburban housewives baked with Crisco, watched Jackie Kennedy give a White House tour on a black and white set, shopped at the Green Stamp store in town, and believed the family doctor that their daughter’s lesbianism was a mental illness, but one that could be cured.
For the NYMF production, to their credit, director Katherine M. Carter and her persuasive cast resist a broad, superior tone in depicting the early ‘60s (although Summer Lee Jack’s costume design – those pearls, a circle skirt, a silly hat — occasionally seem intended to elicit a snicker.) In general, there’s a relative subtlety and intelligence to “Sonata 1962” that avoids the easy satire or polemic with which the subject of homophobia is often depicted on stage.
Sweet, blonde Laura (Christina Maxwell) is a talented musician and composer who wins a scholarship to study music at a university in Los Angeles. There she meets fellow music student Sarah (AnnEliza Canning-Skinner), and they fall in love. They go to a woman’s bar, which the police raid. Laura, facing criminal charges for “lewd conduct,” loses her scholarship and returns home. Her mother Margaret (Erin Leigh Peck) is distraught and desperate, and takes the advice of Dr. Haines (Aaron Ramey), giving him permission to surprise Laura at home with a drug that puts her to sleep, then bring her unconscious to the hospital and subject her to electro-convulsive therapy, ECT.
A comment here: ECT is a currently accepted treatment for depression and other mental illnesses. As the Mayo Clinic points out: “Much of the stigma attached to ECT is based on early treatments in which high doses of electricity were administered without anesthesia, leading to memory loss, fractured bones and other serious side effects.”
Of course, it was never appropriate to administer ECT to anybody just because of their same-sex attraction, and in “Sonata 1962” the family doctor does recommend it as the least “brutal” of the available “treatments.” But it’s unfortunate that the show perpetuates the stigma; perhaps in future productions, they can provide some context in the playbill.
It would be hard for me to claim that “Sonata 1962” has an especially memorable score, all the more so since it sets up expectations by centering around a musician. But at times a lyric will combine with a melody to sublime effect.
Laura sings of her anxiety and exhilaration in the first throes of love in “Movie Theatre,” when Laura and Sarah have gone on their first date, without even knowing that it’s a date, watching the movie of “West Side Story.”
Your knee is touching mine!
Could you think that it’s the chair? You lower your hand
The scent of you has changed the things I wish to know oh oh
In “What If The World Should Open Up,” Margaret and Laura both sing:
If I hold her once again
Would she start to comprehend?
but Margaret is talking about Laura, wishing that her daughter would recover her health and her music (and also perhaps understand why Margaret did what she did), while Laura wants to hold Sarah, hoping she’ll understand that, although they’re being forced apart, she still loves her.
In one of the first songs of the show, “Making The Day,” when Margaret is baking those biscuits, she sings a punchy musical phrase “Got my mixer, my flour, my timer, my powder, my Crisco, my milk and my salt.” Along with the more explicit refrain in that song – “Follow the recipe/Nothing can ever go wrong” — this drives home the point of “Sonata 1962,” presented with compassion. It’s comforting to “follow the recipe,” and hard to accept that life itself doesn’t have one.
Sonata 1962is on stage at Theatre Row as part of the New York Musical Festival.