The Stage Company is coming out.
That’s what Vincent Rhomberg, the director of the Stage Company’s next production, says about the debut of his play, “Almost Identical,” at The Varsity Center next week.
It’s the first play in recent memory that the local community theater outfit will produce with a gay central character. (There have been gay characters in Stage Company productions before, but they’ve never been a protagonist.)
It’s a comedy — a fast-paced farce — that tells the story of twins, one gay and one straight, who through a series of hilarious mix-ups and mishaps, begin to inhabit each other’s lives. And, in the process, they learn to accept and understand themselves and each other.
After Paul, a struggling artist who identifies as gay, mismanages a bit of his family’s trust money, his identical twin, Peter, a womanizer who’s enjoyed financial success, blackmails him into pretending to be Peter so as not to arouse his fiancee’s suspicion while he’s spending time with a saucy stewardess.
Complications abound, crescendoing at a family dinner marked by miscommunications and missed connections.
“Under the comedy of it — and I hope it’s funny — there’s that sense of finding — what they find in the play is a way to accept themselves and each other,” Rhomberg says.
“Both brothers have a similar journey but they get their rewards.”
Rhomberg, a former Carbondale resident who worked for Southern Illinois University for 12 years and is a longtime member of the Stage Company, also wrote the play. He got the idea from a friend of his, a fellow playwright, who he says struggled with his own identity and self-acceptance issues before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and disappeared in the late 1990s.
Before his friend disappeared — “in that process of his decision to escape from life,” as Rhomberg puts it — he asked his friend if he could purchase rights to the idea and write the play himself.
“I liked the sexuality issue and how that plays into their characters and the way their lives have been,” Rhomberg says.
To this day, the agreement the two drew up for Rhomberg to purchase the rights sits at home in his jewelry box, “a treasured memento” of his dear friend.
“I had a funny thing that he would hear about (the production) and show up and make a scene,” Rhomberg jokes.
The production of “Almost Identical” isn’t just momentous to the Stage Company because it’s the first show to feature a gay central character. It’s important to Rhomberg because it’s also not a tragedy.
“A gay play should not always be people that are dying of AIDS, or victims that are being thrown up on fences and beaten,” he says. “There has to be room for positive views of life … You should be able to have a gay character that is traveling through a journey through life and is able to find success and happiness, and not die in the end.”
Writing and directing the play has come with its own set of challenges. For one, the twins are played by one actor, Jeremy Osinga.
“Typically when there’s a conflict, the climactic scene is a confrontation of the two opposing forces,” Rhomberg says. It’s been a challenge to make that happen when the two opposing forces — in this case, the twin brothers — are never on stage at the same time.
And so, less than three weeks before the premiere, Rhomberg and his cast and crew were working out the kinks of backstage quick changes and off-stage dialog and sound effects.
“Almost Identical” may focus on themes of sexual identity, but Rhomberg wants people to know there’s something for everybody in his production.
“Because that universal sense of accepting and finding the ability to love yourself is something that everybody experiences,” he says.
“Almost Identical” runs at The Varsity Center April 13 to 15 and April 19 to 22. Thursday, Friday and Saturday showtimes are 7:30 p.m. On Sundays, showtime is 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for students, except on Thursday, April 19, when all tickets are $7 each. The box office is open from 5 to 7 p.m. April 9 to 14 and April 18 to 21, and at 1 p.m. April 15 and 22. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 618-549-5466 or at stagecompany.org.
The Varsity Center is at 418 S. Illinois Ave. in downtown Carbondale.