Playwright tells a memorable tale in 'Sycamore'
Musical is rooted in Gordon's own coming-of-age experience

Playwright and composer Ricky Ian Gordon wastes no time in making his intentions known. The opening line of his script is for a character named Andrew, who says, "I have a story to tell."

Gordon's characters gather on stage in "Sycamore Trees," a musical playing through June 20 at the Tony Award-winning Signature Theatre in Shirlington Village.

The other characters in the show insist they, too, have a story to tell. So Andrew relents, and declares, "Mom, it starts with you."

"It starts with me?" she asks, smiling broadly. "You know, I like that," and she begins a soft-shoe dance while somehow ironing clothes at the same time.

Be aware that this new show is still a work in progress, emerging from the crucible of Gordon's creation in a kind of theater workshop and as a direct commission by Signature Theatre's American Musical Voices Project.

The first song is memorably luminous: "Let There Be Light," a sentiment of transparency for feelings and family, an expression of that vulnerability that comes with the open expression of emotion through melody and lyrics.

And the last words closing Act 2 are the same, "Let there be light, let there be light," repeated as all the characters gather together again, in the song "My Family."

In between, the playwright has many stories to tell indeed. Some are stories of love, some of loss of love, disappointment and even despair. They are his own family's story, in fact, and though he has changed their names, the details remain rooted in his experiences growing up, so this is first and foremost a coming-of-age story, as well as a coming-out story, for Gordon is gay.

The facts of his life are rooted in this show just as deeply as the eponymous sycamore trees -- the trees lining the blocks of the suburban tract-house neighborhood where he was raised after his family moved to Long Island from the Bronx. They journeyed there in the years after World War II, to that suburban idyll where "girls are all Sandra Dees, in their flats and capris," as summed up in Gordon's lyrics.

The show depicts the coming of age of Andrew and his three sisters: the eldest, Myrna, who wants to be a writer but who ends up a drug addict; the middle sister, Theresa, who fights racial and economic injustice; and the youngest, Ginnie, the family's "good girl" who wants in fact to be anything else but good.

Some critics have seen parallels between "Sycamore Trees" and the narrative arc of the early PBS documentary, "An American Family." Oddly enough, Gordon's family -- including his life-affirming mother, who was still a mostly happy homemaker conjoined to her earlier life as a singer, and his angry, working-class father -- was profiled by journalist Donald Katz in his 1992 book, "Home Fires."

Gordon's approach, with its storytelling delivered directly to the audience, has also been rightly compared to Thornton Wilder's American classic, "Our Town." It's a tall order to meet that standard, but Gordon does.

The Broadway-experienced cast is first-rate, assembled by director and choreographer Tina Landau.

Among the standouts are Tony Yazbeck as Andrew, Diane Sutherland as his mother, Edie, and Marc Kudisch as his father, Sydney. The other cast members -- Jessica Molaskey (Myrna), Judie Kuhn (Theresa), Farah Alvin (Ginnie) playing his sisters, and Matthew Risch as his lover, David -- are also superb.

This tale is woven together memorably, through lyrical songwriting and poignant acting, and is a credit to Signature's faith in Gordon.

Bravo for Gordon and for his play, "Sycamore Trees," which you surely must see.
- David Hoffman, Fairfax Times, June 9, 2010