Every so often, the fates converge to ensure a play-going experience is terrible. Sometimes it’s an unruly audience. Sometimes it’s technical difficulties. Sometimes the theater is too darn hot.
But sometimes, even amid uncomfortable conditions, a performer takes the stage and makes you forget everything else. Makes you realize it doesn’t matter. David Lee Nelson, star of the one-man show The Elephant in My Closet, is that kind of performer.
The opening performance came before sundown on a day in which the mercury topped out at 97 degrees. Chapel Theatre, though air conditioned, is old, and an old building struggles to compete with heat like that. Needless to say, the atmosphere inside the theater as Nelson took the stage was warm. Steamy. One could’ve even called it, with an alarming degree of accuracy, sauna-like.
Amid his housekeeping notes (turn off cell phones, silence vibrators, etc.), Nelson made a crack about the heat, and that was all it took. Suddenly the audience and the performer conspired together to beat the sauna and have a good time.
The next hour was spent reliving Nelson’s former life as a Republican, and his current one as a Democrat. The only problem therein, the elephant in his closet as it were, is this: his father, his hero, remains a die-hard Republican. As much a tribute to his father as it is the story of his coming out of the political closet, Nelson fills the stage with laughter, PowerPoint, and a hell of a lot of heart.
The story begins with a history lesson. Did you know Abraham Lincoln was a Republican? That the Republican party was actually formed by abolitionists, unhappy with Democrats continuing to allow slavery? “You know how you feel when you see a picture of your grandmother when she was young, and you realize: She was once gorgeous, and possibly slutty?” says Nelson early on in the show. “Well, the Republican Party was once gorgeous, and possibly slutty.”
It’s easy to see how a boy, born in the Carolinas, child to a father raised to idolize the Republican Party, was, himself, a long-time staunch Republican. Through family photos and angelically-lit pictures of Ronald Reagan, we learn the tale of a young man who had no choice but to toe the family and party line. And who did so with vim and vigor and love and admiration, most especially for his father, for The Elephant in My Closet is, first and foremost, the story of a son’s love for his dad. That love is palpable, from the play’s opening moment to the final curtain call. It’s real. It’s beautiful.
Nelson tells his story with energy and vigor. He switches easily from nostalgia for days long gone, to anger at Washington’s political horror show, to humor, to audacity, to hope. He pokes fun at himself with anecdotes and photographs. He laughs. He grows pensively quiet.
The show’s writing is brilliant; Nelson’s presentation is lovely.
Throughout the sweaty 65 minutes of The Elephant in My Closet, the audience laughed, they sighed, they sat in rapt silence as Nelson struggled with the conflicts of a political life. And in the end, when his curly hear dripped sweat, and his eyes were bright with emotion, they cheered.
If the phrase “I support gay marriage” turns your stomach, this may not be the show for you. But if you’re looking for a unique take on our country’s political landscape, look no further than The Elephant in My Closet. And if you decide to go, do yourself a favor and wear shorts.