MilkMilkLemonade, a smart new comedy from The Management, tells the story of Emory (Andy Phelan), an 11-year-old boy growing up on a poultry farm with his chain-smoking grandmother (Michael Cyril Creighton). She wishes he would stop playing with dolls and learn to throw like a boy; he wishes she would turn the farm into a vegan co-op. Written by Joshua Conkel, The Management's Artistic Director, MilkMilkLemonade is structured like a children's play, complete with a narrator (Lady in a Leotard, played with anxious delight by Nikole Beckwith). "I will attempt to remain as neutral as possible," she tells the audience at the outset of the play, helpfully adding "neutral means boring." Other elements of the play that are evocative of children's theater include the cheery primary colors of Jason Simm's cardboard set, a giant chicken named Linda (Jennifer Harder, whose emotive clucks are translated into English by Lady in a Leotard), and a couple of enthusiastic dance segments.
In the hands of director Isaac Butler, the play's structural childlike qualities permeate every aspect of the production, to terrific results. MilkMilkLemonade is a gay coming of age story that tackles queerness from the perspective of an effeminate 11-year-old. Under Butler's direction, "childlike" never includes a knowing wink and nod from the grown-up artists. Neither does it devolve into cutesy preciousness. Instead, we are given a comedy infused with all the quiet seriousness and whimsy of preadolescence.
"If people didn't play the roles that god gave 'em," Nana asks Emory early in the play, "what would happen?" Yet for a dialogue that begins with a gloss of Leviticus, their exchange is marked more by familial pouting than by religious solemnity. MilkMilkLemonade is noteworthy for its depiction of a young generation of rural queers. Without making light of the challenges Emory will face as he grows up, it suggests those hardships are difficult and complicated, but ultimately surmountable. There is no utopic solution or angry cultural critique.
Anger is largely absent from the play. Linda the chicken is often sad but struggles to accept her chicken farm fate. Although Nana wishes her grandson would butch up, her love for him is as obvious as it is tough. Emory negotiates his desires and social expectations with a hilarious, heartbreaking earnestness. Only Elliot (Jess Barbagallo), a boy who lives down the street and has a penchant for playing with fire, struggles with anger, and he does so directly, imagining, in one of the play's more inventive devices, an evil parasitic twin who compels him to act on his furious impulses and who lives inside his thigh.
As the play unfolds, Emory and Elliot's relationship becomes more complicated than first meets Nana's eye. Their youthful exploration of homoeroticism is, by turns, terrifyingly destructive and adorably sweet. When they play a game of house that's Tennessee Williams by way of Molly Ringwald, MilkMilkLemonade is at its meta-theatrical best. The boys' game of make-believe trades in gendered cultural imaginaries that expose how normative gender has long served as fantasy. Fantasy: both an illusion and a sexy indulgence.
Make no mistake: MilkMilkLemonade, which takes its title from a dirty children's rhyme, explores its overarching themes (sex, bodies, fate) through playful action, not heady analysis or sentimental preaching. That renders its critique especially effective. This is a play with card-board chickens taped to the walls (a fabulous touch).
If it's worth noting that the play includes cross-gendered casting, it's only to emphasize that this is not drag. Each of the characters is played with unwavering integrity by the talented cast. Phelan and Barbagallo deserve special credit for meeting the challenge of portraying young boys without condescending to their roles. Emory and Elliot are smart and funny, neither too immature nor overly sophisticated. Phelan and Barbagallo do 11-year-olds everywhere proud.
It's tough to be an effeminate boy in farm town. When life gives you lemons, campy romps and breakout dance segments are still a lot of fun.