There's a fire of fervor in The Studio Players' Southwest Florida premiere of 'Torch Song'

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

Nothing has been easy about The Studio Players' ambitious local premiere of Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song."

Kevin Hendricks and Matt Flynn had to build movable blocks of thrust stage for its bedroom conversations.. 

Perry Ventro, who plays central character Arnold Beckoff, had to learn lines for nearly every minute of the play, with a seven-minute monologue right out of the box

Patti Caroli had to play against type as the sharp-edged Ma Beckoff: "I want to turn toward the audience and shout, 'I'm not like this!" she said. "But if I'm doing a good job, you'll hate me."

Robin Bache Gray, production manager, had to find what looks like the world's largest pair of bunny slippers for Ventro's feet. She went for professional help to teach Ventro, who plays a professional drag queen, how to apply cosmetics. A makeup artist coached him. 

(Left to right) Arnold Beckoff (Perry Ventro), David (Michael Cherbini) and Ed (Scott Davis) during the second act of a dress rehearsal of "Torch Song" in the Joan Jenks auditorium at the Golden Gate Community Center in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 1, 2021. The Studio Players will perform "Torch Song" on Sept. 10 - 26, 2021.

Most of all, before its first performance, "Torch Song" actors were stretched to understand, or remember, the life of a gay person in the play's 1970s and '80s time frame. It stimulated more questions: Has it changed that much? And was what they saw then reality? 

We're looking for fans, skeptics, too

That's the kind of thinking Scott Lilly, the theater's producing artistic director, and director for this bucket list play, wants. He knows the theater's base of supporters will come. But he also hopes the skeptics will come. This may be the first production of the Tony-winning play by a community theater — or by any theater — in southern Florida.

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Briefly told, "Torch Song" is one man's search for happiness and family, which would be miles easier were he not gay. Arnold Beckoff, the main character, can't even get his own mother's respect.

It's the kind of pain Ventro says he doesn't have to dig deep to find. 

"He’s part of what I’ve had to go through in my own life. The terrible injustices that happened — I went through it all. It’s still really difficult to think about. Maybe there’s more tolerance now," he said. He's not sure of that, however, he added.

"The toughest thing is relive the conversations with your parents. But they served me well for the role."

The lack of traditional courtship traditions and institutions plays into its narrative: The LGBTQ+ community has never had been supported for dating situations. Marriage has been a hard-won right, only affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2015. So meeting points were too often hookups in gay bars. 

Arnold Beckoff (Perry Ventro) during the first act of a dress rehearsal of "Torch Song" in the Joan Jenks auditorium at the Golden Gate Community Center in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 1, 2021. The Studio Players will perform "Torch Song" on Sept. 10 - 26, 2021.

It was a structure Caroli remembers from her years working for an advertising agency in New York. A number of her gay coworkers were verbal about their one-night flings. Caroli of Naples has since attended three gay weddings and knows several transgender people, and she senses the times perhaps dictated their lives.

"My feeling then was there was a lot more interest in getting laid rather than being in a relationship," she said.

"I found out later, as I started to hear about people coupling up, that it may not have been an accurate picture. I found out there were people who were in a committed relationship. They must have kept it very quiet."

But everyone with a role in bringing "Torch Song" to Naples is excited about their fellow actors as well as the play. Caroli says she was bowled over by the work of Michael Cherbini, the Cypress Lake High School senior who plays David, Arnold's adopted son. (Theatergoers may recognize him from his roles as Frederic in Opera Naples' Youth production of "Pirates of Penzance" and as Ralphie in The Naples Players' "A Christmas Story.")

(Left to right) Ed (Scott Davis) and Alan (Daniel Sabiston)  during the first act of a dress rehearsal of "Torch Song" in the Joan Jenks auditorium at the Golden Gate Community Center in Naples, Fla., on Sept. 1, 2021. The Studio Players will perform "Torch Song" on Sept. 10 - 26, 2021.

And some of the most nuanced roles go to Stacey Boisvert and Daniel Sabiston. Boisvert, as Laurel, must balance her love for Ed, Arnold's former partner, with the realization her husband is bisexual. Alan, vacationing with Arnold at Laurel's and Ed's lake house, has his discomfort with the situation ratcheted up by Ed's attraction to him.

Actors stretch, hope viewers do, too

Scott Davis, who plays the conflicted Ed, says his own role has been informed by personal experience: "Whatever Ed has gone through, I have gone through," he said. 

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," he said of his debut role for The Studio Players. His is the only other character who appears in both parts of "Torch Song."  And Davis had just come off a Naples Players' production of "The Ideal Husband."

"But I'm having a great time," he said. "It's a great cast." Caroli echoed that. She also has great hopes for "Torch Song" audiences.

"My wish would be that people would open their minds a little bit. This goes for both sides," she said. Caroli recalls her lecture to a relative about a brother coming out. 

"He’s the same guy you grew up with. The same guy you traded baseball cards with," she said. "The only difference is what he does in the bedroom. Do people ask you what you do in your bedroom?"

"And I would want the gay people to not just say, 'Oh, they hate me' and dismiss characters like Ma. They need to understand that people like Ma Beckoff were brought up in a different way."

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-213-6091.

Where: Joan Jenks Auditorium, Golden Gate Community Center, 4701 Golden Gate Parkway

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Sept. 25 and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 26

Tickets $30

To buy: or 239-398-9192

COVID-19 precautions: Patrons at the Golden Gate Community Center are encouraged to wear a mask if unvaccinated.