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Tough Love

James Still's glimpse of family life in Iron Kisses


It happens all the time: Two children are raised in the same house by the same people, yet as adults, they feel they had two completely different upbringings. Playwright James Still's play, Iron Kisses, examines in close detail the special phenomenon that is family, and the familial roles in which an average Midwestern family find themselves. On the surface, Iron Kisses is a story on the subject of gay marriage, and how conservative, small-town parents must deal with the issues that surround having a gay son. But the gay-marriage issue is such a minor detail of the play--it's really a story about family relationships and about how your family can shape you and hurt you all at the same time.

The decision to produce Iron Kisses was unanimously and enthusiastically embraced by everyone at Spontaneous Productions, from the artistic director to the board of directors. Why did so many people find one play so unifying?

"It's just so beautifully written," said Mike Silva, president and general manager of Spontaneous Productions. "Artistic director Buffie Main knew about the play so we decided to get a copy of it to read. I was the first one to read it, and I couldn't put it down. At the end of it, I was sitting there in tears because I was so moved by it. I was moved by what was happening to these people, and I was moved at how beautiful the language was."

Still has a long, extensive and impressive resume. He has received many prominent awards, and his plays have been produced all over the world. And, Still also writes for television and film. He's been nominated for four Emmys for his work in children's television. Still was a writer and story editor for Maurice Sendak's long-running series Little Bear, as well as Bill Cosby's award-winning children's show, Little Bill. Still wrote The Little Bear Movie and the feature film, The Velocity of Gary, which starred Salma Hayek, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio and Olivia d'Abo.

Still grew up in a small town in Kansas, and currently lives in Venice, California. The organizers asked him to come to Boise to be present for the opening weekend of his play, and Still enthusiastically agreed. When asked what compelled him to come to Boise, he said, "I get asked to come to a lot of places, and oftentimes I have to say no. It's usually because of schedule problems. But Iron Kisses is pretty special to me, and I was just so moved that people in Boise were doing my play. I said, OK, I have to go to this one."

Having the playwright attend opening weekend made the cast and crew work even harder than usual. Buffie Main who served double duty as both a cast member and artistic director of Iron Kisses said of Still, "He is such a delight--to meet him was such an honor and a joy. I had no idea what he'd be like, no clue. It was really quite stressful up until that point. I was definitely more cognizant of getting every word right because I didn't want to mess up his words. But it was such a joy!"

None of that nervousness was noticeable at opening night. Main and castmate Gordon Hendrickson--who play all four characters--played their parts with powerful conviction. With only one of the three scenes having shared dialogue between the two actors, the actors mostly had to transition between characters in a seamless merging of father, mother, daughter and son.

When asked what he enjoyed most about being in Iron Kisses, Hendrickson replied, "As an actor, switching back and forth between playing a mother and a father. Just experiencing that blend that's in all of us between the feminine and the masculine, the maternal and the paternal. Every time we rehearsed, I found something new to tie the mother and father in together. As an actor, I want to sort of have those transitions be seamless. There's a lot of honesty in the characters, and it's hard for them to talk about what they're talking about. The characters are making that hard decision to talk about emotional things and [I want] to honor that by trying to make it believable."

Main responded to the challenge of playing multiple characters as well, stating that, "The characters' mannerisms ... that's one of the things that intrigued me from the script. I was amazed at how natural it was, and I think that's a testament to the script and how well-written it [is]. It was quite easy. It came from the writing. The characters are just in there, they come from that."

Director Chris Kelly isn't new to theater, although it has been almost 20 years since she's directed a play. Commenting on having two actors portraying four family members, Kelly said, "It was exciting. They're just mesmerizing. It was a pleasure to see them in the play. Every time I'm transformed by their performances." When asked what she hoped audiences would take away from the theater, Kelly answered, "I just hope that they can see their own family in it and that they can learn how important every moment is and that they can see that really, everything is about love."

Love is more than an underlying current in Iron Kisses. It's almost a fifth character. Still said, "I think that one of the most radical things I could write about right now in our country is love. And to me, that's what it's really about. It's about love and grief and about how those things go together and also how they kind of create their own tension. Primarily, it was about love, and later on, I realized it was also about grief, and about family. I feel like one way or another, I'm always writing about family.

"It's very much about point of view and about family mythology. What stories we create, perpetuate and then what roles we play in our family."

When asked how much a part his small-town upbringing plays in his work, Still replied, "I think it has huge impact. I think I denied that. I finally had the courage to start writing about where I came from, and with that, of course, came a huge gush of emotion and authenticity."

When asked to talk about the experience of writing Iron Kisses, Still replied, "I wrote the play I wanted to write. It wasn't picked apart--it's what I wanted to write, and I feel that's why it's so honest. This is everybody's story. It's everybody's family."

What Still hasn't said is that his play is really a multi-faceted, deeply moving and thought-provoking character piece that digs deep under the foundation, past the roots of family and tugs hard at the heart and guts of viewers. Iron Kisses is smart, funny, painfully honest and unflinching in its examination of how a mother, father, daughter and son become all of us.

Spontaneous Productions' presentation of Iron Kisses continues May 10-11 at 8 p.m.; May 12 at 8 p.m. $15 general, $20 bistro available through and at the door. For more information, call 208-363-7053 or 208-573-0623. Visual Arts Collective, 1419 W. Grove St., Boise, 208-424-8297,