Long Wharf Theater
That everlasting contest between father and sons is classic literary fodder. Rivalry and jealousy, love and hate, independence and servility, daring and caution have been familiar ever since Oedipus slew his daddy and married his mommy. In “The Lion,” Benjamin Scheuer’s musical memoir at Long Wharf, the writer / composer / performer is alone on stage with several guitars (all acoustic except for one electric), journeying from child to adult as he comes to terms with his father. Charming even when veering off into banality, Scheuer avoids outright sentimentality, telling his story with unaffected candor.
The tall, mop-haired singer/actor starts with “My father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs,” prompting Benjamin to want to “play like him.” Soon, dad builds son a banjo made of a cookie tin lid, with rubber bands for strings and old neckties for straps. More than a toy, the makeshift banjo is a gift of music.
When his father punishes him for a bad grade by not allowing Benjamin to take a band trip, he pins an angry note to dad’s bedroom door. His father’s ensuing illness, he believes, was prompted by his rebellion. As guilt overtakes him, he separates from his family, has girlfriend problems, is finally felled by a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which almost costs him his life. He was 28.
The disease, from which he recovered, gives him the impetus to review his regrets, his undeniable talent, his relationships. That in turn, leads to the story we’re hearing, mostly told through music as he accompanies his own songs. The electric guitar’s spectral screeches most tellingly express his frustrations.
Learning to play like himself, not like his dad, is also learning to find himself. It’s the lion’s pride, not his roar that counts most, a universal search that suggests claiming victory over remorse allows a triumph over disease, disappointment and dissonance.
Scheuer plays a mean guitar – the music alone is worth attending. Sean Daniel’s intimate direction helps create an authentic camaraderie with the audience. Neil Patel’s unobtrusive set of a spare room, moodily lit by Ben Stanton, furthers the illusion of sharing regrets and successes with spectators, except some of us, given Scheuer’s travails, would head for the psychologist, while Scheuer finds salvation in music.
“Bad things happen without reason,” he says. “I’ve carried all this guilt with me; now it’s time to let it free.” And so he does, in an easy-going, comforting, non-threatening evening.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 21, 2016