Audiences connected with the character so deeply when the play arrived on Broadway that Fierstein has confessed that without the role—and the performance of its originator, Estelle Getty—Torch Song would never have had such a universal appeal. Audiences saw the best and the worst parts of their own mothers in the character whose unwavering love for her son wasn’t enough for her to overcome her belief that his homosexual lifestyle was a choice—and a wrong one, at that.
Torch Song’s protagonist Arnold Beckoff—a drag queen from Brooklyn on a quest to grab a piece of the American middle class dream for himself—and his mother ultimately helped mainstream the gay narrative in a legitimate manner. Now the play is being revived Off-Broadway at Second Stage starring Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his fearsome mother.
“This was written in the late 1970s and Harvey’s play was the first to break that particular glass ceiling,” Ruehl says. “I’m reading this play now and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, people really were closeted. Much more than they are now.’” But if homosexuality is less shameful and hidden than it was at the time Fierstein was writing, then it is Mrs. Beckoff’s rigid notions that become more difficult to identify with, something not lost on Ruehl.
“For me to play her in 2017, I have to find an ‘as if’ that is as outrageous as her son being gay in 1979,” Ruehl says. “I have to find a metaphor, that’s the only way I can deal with it, otherwise the woman seems tremendously unkind, and lacking in insight, and not open or loving toward her son. But what Harvey makes very clear in the play is that she loves him, and he loves her. And this thing that the two of them have to come to terms with together is extremely hard for both of them. It’s like they’re both trying to climb the side of a mountain, each one on a different side, to meet at the pinnacle.”
That unwavering love, even accompanied as it is by fury at what Mrs. Beckhoff sees as a willful choice, is at the heart of Fierstein’s play—and a very contemporary theme. “How do you hang in with love when love gets really, really difficult?” Ruehl says. “How do you return rejection with love? And that’s a central challenge in the human dilemma—and I think very timely.”